Southeast Asian Leaders Join President Obama in California: A Historic Summit

Posted by Daniel R. Russel
February 9, 2016
A view of the house from across one of the lakes on the golf course at Sunnylands, the Annenberg retreat in Rancho Mirage, California.

Preparations are in full swing for the U.S.-ASEAN Leader’s Summit, an unprecedented event taking place at the Sunnylands Estate (near Palm Springs, CA) on February 15th and 16th. My counterparts and I are finalizing the agenda for our presidents and prime ministers, Air Force One will be fueling up soon, and our Protocol team is ironing out the last details.

Next week’s special Summit is an exciting occasion for me and other members of President Obama’s Asia policy team because it brings full circle the commitment he made at the start of his presidency to refocus and rebalance our foreign policy to deepen our engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. 

The President made clear at the beginning that the region’s youthful populations, fast-paced economies, and growing consumer base were important to America's own economic future. While these qualities are abundant in Southeast Asia, the region’s leaders have long recognized that an additional ingredient was needed for their success – a regional order based on rules.

Recognizing this need, Southeast Asian leaders banded together in 1967 to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to support each other and set common rules for managing their trade and relations.

Policymakers in Washington have long agreed with regional leaders on the importance of a rules-based order. The United States has consistently believed that the best way to keep borders and sea lanes safe, to create jobs and prosperity, to protect the environment, and to counter terrorism, is to have strong, fair rules.  That’s why we have made a sustained investment in building up our relations with ASEAN.

Organizations like ASEAN, which are built on the foundation of international law and rules, create a platform for progress. Within this international order, ASEAN nations have maintained peace and advanced prosperity. They have raised standards of living, expanded educational opportunities, and settled longstanding disputes. They are building a closer regional community and integrating their economies. They are also developing a middle class where citizens support civil society and increasingly demand accountability from government institutions.  

As some governments struggle with these changes, the United States is working with them to promote good governance and respect for universal human rights and freedoms. The deepening of democracy in places like Indonesia and the Philippines offers a remarkable example to other ASEAN nations. By the same token, the transformation in Burma has been nothing short of an inspiration to the world. The United States has proudly and strongly supported both the people and reformist leaders of these three countries, just as we stand ready to help other nations and leaders with similar ambitions.

As they have made progress at home, the ASEAN countries have also worked to expand the benefits of rules and institutions to countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region by hosting the East Asia Summit, or EAS, which consists of 18 countries, including the United States, China, Japan, Australia, Russia, and others. 

Over the years, EAS has evolved into much more than just another annual summit. It is now a unique forum for regional leaders to discuss tough issues that really matter, such as security in the South China Sea; responding to pandemic disease and natural disasters; fighting climate change; stopping the movement of terrorists and their money, and countering their hateful propaganda. While the 18 EAS leaders meet once a year, their diplomats engage throughout the year to forge common approaches to important issues. 

As ASEAN has stepped up, so has the U.S.-ASEAN Strategic Partnership -- as our upcoming leaders’ meeting shows. By meeting for two full days of extended, in-depth consultations, we can do more to advance our strategic goals and to address shared challenges than we can in shorter meetings.

As we prepare for Sunnylands, we stand proud to be a long-term strategic partner to ASEAN. We are proud of the close relationship the United States has built with each of the ten ASEAN members.  And we are proud to host the leaders for this historic summit next week.

If you want to hear more about the summit, watch live tomorrow, at 2:30 P.M. Eastern time, as I brief members of the Asian media.

About the Author: Daniel R. Russel serves as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

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