The way forward from Sunnylands

The Sunnylands Declaration released last week is a formative document that will help chart the way for Asean and the United States in the decades ahead.

This outcome was to be expected, given the symbolic significance of the Special US-Asean Leaders Summit. The Sunnylands meeting was the first summit of Asean leaders with a United States president on American soil.

However, turning symbol into substance is a challenge at all such gatherings. It is the substantive aspects of the declaration that give it credibility as a template for US-Asean ties in the key areas of security and the economy.

Sunnylands acknowledged that security has come to the forefront of joint US-South-east Asian concerns. The transformation of China's demographic weight into economic prowess has proceeded clearly to the next step: the bold display of military strength.

This progression is entirely natural. It is absurd to ask nations to forego levels of military ability commensurate with their economic status. When they are richer, they have more to lose. When they have more to lose, they need to spend more to keep what they have. Strategic heft protects economic gains. However, the possibility of militarisation invokes fears of expansionism among the neighbours of an already powerful country. This is what is happening today.

China's efforts to broaden its strategic footprint in the South China Sea have set it at loggerheads with some Asean nations that have competing maritime claims. Asean as a whole has been drawn into the dispute, not as a claimant but as an association that believes in freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas, and in unimpeded lawful maritime commerce.

Indeed, these objectives are not only Asean's but reflect also universally recognised principles of international law, and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Asean expects of China no more than what international law does. Yet, Beijing has just deployed advanced missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea. To its detractors, this move would be the latest indication of a strategic doctrine based on making territorial gains that create the material basis for arguments under international law.

In this context, there are two features of the Sunnylands Declaration that are of interest.

First, it embodies the unanimous support of the US and Asean for principles of international law that should guide the conduct of nations in the South China Sea. The onus is on China to move towards that consensus - or away from it.

If Beijing chooses to make its claims convergent with international law, it will enjoy the support of its South-east Asian neighbours and its chief international partner, the US. If Beijing persists with a nationalist approach to its maritime claims, it will underscore its differences with both Asean and America. It is its choice.

Second, however, the Sunnylands Declaration does not go beyond asking China to behave responsibly. It does not presage the setting up of an anti-China coalition that includes Asean and the US.

It well might be that such a coalition will come into being one day to contain China, and that individual countries of Asean will have to decide whether to belong to it. That would be a tragedy for Asean. Indonesia should want no part in such an anti-China strategy. But the point is that Sunnylands was not about the creation of a coalition hostile to China.

The summit brought together Asean and the US to discuss strategy vis-a-vis China, not against it. This is an important distinction because it is time to restate the axiom that South-east Asia's ties with the US are not a zero-sum game. China is a part of those relations because Asean cannot ignore it in its dealings with the US, just as China cannot exclude Japan, Korea and Asean from its strategic engagement with America.

Another pressing issue is, of course, terrorism. Indonesians have been among the worst victims of terrorist attack in South-east Asia. They need no reminder of how the deviationist and insurgent version of faith - potentially, any faith - can wreak havoc on society. Indonesia's eclectic social fabric has been woven through centuries of peaceful co-existence, understanding, tolerance and the deepening of mutual stakes among its ethnic and religious communities. But it is not immune to terror and the distrust it breeds.

The Sunnylands Declaration spoke of the need for strong resolve by the US and Asean to lead on global issues such as terrorism and violent extremism.

This is an imperative, not an option. The so-called threat from China exercises many minds, but there is nothing intrinsically Chinese even in that putative threat. Countries make, and remake, foreign policy. So does, and will, China. Terrorism, by contrast, is by definition a threat to fundamental principles of thought and action that allow countries of different ideological, political, economic and social persuasions to function together.

As two multi-ethnic entities, Asean and the US are destined to converge in the fight against terror. Sunnylands underpinned the rationale of that convergence.


Yet, the future of Asean's ties with the United States goes beyond its immediate relations with China and even the common war on terror. Economic choices by both the US and Asean will underpin their security cooperation.

The Sunnylands declaration supports policies that lead to dynamic, open and competitive economies. The common US-Asean focus is on economic growth, job creation, innovation, entrepreneurship and connectivity.

These are platitudes, of course. The real question is what these motherhood goals mean in the real world of globalisation.

What they mean is that the US sent a signal at Sunnylands that it was not about to vacate its seat as the pre-eminent economic power to contenders, Asian or otherwise. Ever since the end of World War II, the US has sought to establish universal rules of the economic game. The Soviet Union fell afoul of those rules and passed eventually into the margins of economic history. Those parts of South-east Asia that went with Moscow ran out of economic time and, in fact, became members of Asean.

Today, America's unrivalled leadership of global competition holds opportunities for Asean that no rival model does. That leadership is embodied in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade pact which is based on gold standards of integration that can create a new network of like-minded economies.

There is no harm if Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank take off, bringing South-east Asia closer to its giant North-east Asian neighbour. The ultimate test for Asean, however, is what will integrate it with the global economy, not what will make it a fragmented part of the global whole.

The Sunnylands gathering pointed the way ahead. It declared that America is here to stay in South-east Asia, not as the only great power, but as the indispensable one.

Asean will hold America up to the expectations Sunnylands has raised.

• The writer is Editor at Large of the Jakarta Globe and member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on South-east Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'The way forward from Sunnylands'. Print Edition | Subscribe