The View From Asia

Staking positions on US-Asean summit

The widely differing responses of countries in the region to the summit are captured in these excerpts of commentaries published in Asia News Network newspapers.

A warning to Beijing

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan

A message has been sent to China, which is attempting to turn the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea into military strongholds, warning that its self-serving actions are unacceptable.

US President Barack Obama invited leaders of the 10-member Asean for the first US-Asean summit to be held in the United States.

With the South China Sea in mind, a joint statement by the leaders set forth the importance of maintaining maritime security and safety by ensuring the right to the freedom of navigation, non-militarisation and self-restraint. It avoided making pointed references to China but implicitly issued a warning regarding China's outrageous behaviour.

One of the artificial islands China has built in the Spratly Islands reportedly contains a 3,000m-class runway and hangars for fighter jets. Test flights were conducted on the island at the beginning of this year, and full-fledged operations of the runway are expected to start shortly.

China has also reportedly deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system and a radar system on an island it effectively controls in the Paracel Islands.

Viewing the United States as an "extra-regional state" in the South China Sea, China refuses to accept US intervention in the region.

China may be making too light of the situation, thinking that once it excludes US influence from the region, it can make its maritime interests a fait accompli.

Yet the safety of sea lanes is a common good for the international community, including Japan.

US President Barack Obama (centre) at Sunnylands, California, with (from left) Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian PM Najib Razak, Laos President Choummaly Sayasone, Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong, Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Tan Dung and Myanmar Vice-President Nyan Tun. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Taking sides not an option

China Daily, China

The first US-Asean summit hosted by the United States, which US President Barack Obama called "landmark", did not bear the fruit some had coveted.

The final joint statement did incorporate categorical calls for "peaceful resolution of disputes", "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes", and "freedom of navigation and overflight". But it refrained from the kind of name-calling some in the gathering had desperately wanted.

Their fantasy of issuing a Washington-endorsed warning to Beijing turned out to be a mirage.

What actually happened at Rancho Mirage the past two days was in no way beyond anticipation. It was precisely what the parties should and have accomplished.

The US has very high stakes in South-east Asia. Mr Obama sees very clearly that, in order to perpetuate its global dominance, his country can't afford to miss the fast train of growth on the other side of the Pacific.

Asean, on the other hand, can benefit from US advantages in technologies, funds and management expertise.

It should have been clear to all that taking sides between Beijing and Washington is a non-option for most Asean members. It is thus more than natural for the two sides to establish a Strategic Partnership.

Their trade and development partnerships are not only mutually beneficial, but also ultimately conducive to economic vibrancy in the entire region. That is why Beijing has responded positively to Washington's engagement with Asean. That is the kind of win-win scenario Beijing wants to share with Washington, and any other interested parties.

Partnership and hope

Chandra Kusuma
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

It is interesting to discern the manner in which the Sunnylands Declaration will mark the future role of Indonesia in Asean and, even further, in the wider context of East Asia or Asia-Pacific cooperation.

The declaration, in particular, is expected to raise the profile of Indonesia under Asean cooperation as the hub for various policy discussions, negotiations, and formulation and implementation of relations. 

Indonesia also stands to play a key part in strengthening Asean's exposure and role in international forums.

The country, currently the sole Asean representative at the Group of 20 (G-20) forum, has already shown keen support for Asean participation in the G-20 meetings.

Due to the ever-increasing complexities of regional and global challenges, it is central for Indonesia to take the lead in developing synergy between Asean and other forums of cooperation. 

The inclusion of the East Asia Summit in the Sunnylands Declaration may well be indicative of expectations.

If that is the case, it is just a matter of time before Indonesia leads the way for a wider scope of cooperation within East Asia or the Asia-Pacific region. 

The 2013 report titled "A US-Indonesia Partnership for 2020" pointed out that a long-term perspective on the part of United States companies in Indonesia would allow the host country to reap the biggest economic development benefit. 

This will occur if US investors take the leap and enter the Indonesian market. 

Summit and reality

Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippines

The summit represents not merely an advance in US President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia, but also the culmination of two presidential terms' worth of engagement with key partners in the region.

But Beijing knows, perhaps better than Washington does, that Asean's main strength, its consensus-building approach to matters large and small, is also the association's main weakness.

China has allies in the regional bloc, including Cambodia and Laos. While the Code of Conduct remains on the Asean agenda, China's allies in Asean have proven themselves ready to sacrifice language or even opportunity for progress in the ongoing disputes just to please Beijing. And because there is a fundamental ambivalence on the part of these Asean members on the issue involving the South China Sea, actual progress on the Code of Conduct remains elusive.

And the United States knows only too well that its future is dependent to a large extent on its relations with China; the Obama administration's pivot to Asia is, at bottom, also a pivot to China.

Indeed, the symbolism of the choice of summit site cannot be lost on the Chinese. The Sunnylands estate was also the venue of another important meeting: the breakthrough summit between Mr Obama and Mr Xi Jinping, the new paramount leader of China.

In this case, symbol is very much part of the new reality.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. See for more.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Staking positions on US-Asean summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe