PM Lee in US for special Asean summit

He will meet Silicon Valley tech leaders before attending first US-Asean Leaders Summit hosted by Obama

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong heads to the United States today where he is due to meet Silicon Valley top brass and attend a US-Asean Leaders Summit hosted by United States President Barack Obama.

The week-long visit begins in San Francisco where PM Lee will meet California governor Jerry Brown, as well as some of the top names in the technology industry, including Tesla and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Mr Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet.

The Prime Minister's Office said that PM Lee will also meet Singaporeans living in the area and host a roundtable discussion with Singaporean tech professionals.

The Prime Minister's visit to Silicon Valley comes as the tech hub's political and economic clout is growing. Last year, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tacked on meetings with tech leaders on the US West Coast before heading for other official engagements in New York and Washington, DC.

After his meetings in the San Francisco area, PM Lee will head to the Sunnylands estate for a special US-Asean summit, which marks the first time the US has hosted a meeting with Asean heads of government. It comes on the back of an Asean Summit in November last year where the leaders upgraded the US-Asean relationship to a strategic partnership.

The leaders are expected to discuss Asean-US economic and political security cooperation, and regional and international issues. The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement - which includes the US and Asean members Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei - was signed last week, and will likely be on the agenda at Sunnylands.

While Washington pundits do not expect much by way of concrete agreements, they emphasised the important message the meeting sends.

Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, told The Straits Times that the summit is an effort by President Obama to lay the groundwork for a stronger US- Asean relationship as he gets ready to hand over the administration to a successor.

"Sunnylands represents the culmination of President Obama's attempt to reinvent US-South-east Asian relations," he said.

"The United States has locked in enhanced engagement with Asean members and, as a result, South-east Asian leaders know they should look to Washington if they want to preserve a stable security environment and expand trade and economic development. Whoever succeeds Obama will want to build on this sturdy foundation."

Mr Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, similarly sees the move as an attempt by the White House to "institutionalise" such meetings.

"The summit will try to make clear that South-east Asia is important to the US beyond China. The region is the United States' fourth-largest trading partner and - a fact that is often overlooked in the hubbub about China's increasing economic ties with the region - US companies have invested more in South-east Asia than Japan and China combined," he said.

PM Lee will be accompanied on the trip by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and senior government officials.

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean will be Acting Prime Minister during PM Lee's absence.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline PM Lee in US for special Asean summit. Subscribe