US-Asean summit 'will advance rebalance to Asia'

US President Barack Obama (centre) with (from far left) Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Tan Dung, Malaysian PM Najib Razak, Laos PM Thongsing Thammavong and Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malay
US President Barack Obama (centre) with (from far left) Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Tan Dung, Malaysian PM Najib Razak, Laos PM Thongsing Thammavong and Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah at the Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov 21.PHOTO: REUTERS

California meeting will mark first time that leaders are gathering in US outside Asean Summit framework

Leaders of Asean and the United States will meet next month in California in a first-of-its-kind summit being hailed as an important signal of US commitment to the region.

The White House yesterday revealed details of the previously announced meeting to take place at the Sunnylands retreat in Rancho Mirage, California, on Feb 15-16, adding that it will advance the administration's rebalancing to Asia.

"This unprecedented gathering - the first hosted by the United States with the Asean leaders - builds on the deeper partnership that the United States has forged with Asean since 2009 and will further advance the administration's rebalance to Asia and the Pacific," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

He added: "For nearly 40 years, the United States and Asean have worked toward stability, prosperity and peace in South-east Asia. This summit will provide leaders a forum to strengthen cooperation under the new US-Asean strategic partnership, launched in November 2015 in Kuala Lumpur."

The US National Security Council had earlier said that Asean leaders had accepted President Barack Obama's invitation to the summit.

The meeting in February caps what have been a busy six months for Washington's engagement with Asia that includes key year-end summits and the conclusion of negotiations on a landmark free trade pact.

At the Asean Summit in November, Asean leaders and Mr Obama formally elevated the status of their relationship to a strategic partnership.

Speaking to reporters at the summit, US ambassador to Asean Nina Hachigian had said: "The upgrade of our relationship to a strategic partnership and the invitation of President Obama for all 10 Asean leaders to come to the United States this year are perfect examples of how we have increased our engagement in the Asia-Pacific pretty dramatically and have set a new - what we call a new - normal."

While meetings between US and Asean leaders are not unusual, the Sunnylands summit will mark the first time they are gathering in the United States outside the Asean Summit framework.

The choice of Sunnylands is also significant as it was the place where Mr Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and global terrorism are expected to be key topics at the February summit. Four members of Asean - Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - are party to the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact.

The US is also watching the transition of power in Myanmar keenly after historic elections there in November. The summit could be the first meeting to be attended by the head of the new Myanmar government.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline 'US-Asean summit 'will advance rebalance to Asia''. Print Edition | Subscribe