US President Barack Obama meets ASEAN Leaders in Sunnylands, California

February 16, 2016

US President Barack Obama meets ASEAN Leaders in Sunnylands, California

by Caitlin McCaffrie

US-ASEAN Summit sends bad signal for human rights across the region, writes Caitlin McCaffrie. 


Secretary of State John Kerry met Prime Minister Hun Sen on a recent visit to Phnom Penh

Much is being made of the upcoming US-ASEAN Summit that will take place on 15 and 16 February 15. While such meetings have been held annually since 2013, this will be the first time all 10 ASEAN leaders will meet with Barack Obama on US soil, and is widely seen as reaffirming Washington’s shifting regional focus.

The US has been redirecting its corporate and military focus towards the Asia-Pacific since it announced it’s ‘pivot to Asia’ in 2011. ASEAN is the US’s fourth largest trading partner and maintaining good ties with the region is critical to counter the ascendant economic and political influence of China.

ASEAN is a strange beast. In many ways it represents not so much a coming together of like-minded states but an alliance of necessity formed to counterbalance the larger regional powers of China and India. The launch of the ASEAN Economic Community on January 1 was a step toward greater economic integration, however politically speaking the region remains stubbornly divided.

Most recently this division was evident in the group’s response to North Korea’s internationally condemned nuclear test. In its position as 2016 ASEAN Chair, Lao PDR chose to adopt a relatively mild position on the issue, despite push back from Vietnam and Thailand who wanted the statement to be stronger.

North Korea may be on the agenda in Sunnylands, but two other topics that are certain to come up, and could prove just as divisive, are China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS), and the freshly signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The SCS dispute directly affects four ASEAN members: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and has pushed them into direct disagreement with China. The issue is now before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, however China has already declared it does not accept the court’s jurisdiction. Regardless, it is important that ASEAN presents a united front on the issue, and it will likely be one that is in agreement with US interests.

The other issue, the TPP, has been touted as the ‘primary economic dimension’ of America’s rebalance to Asia. The partnership of 12 countries, seven years in the making, includes only four ASEAN members; Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. It is likely that the US will use the meeting to encourage future membership; solidifying an economic relationship that excludes China.

Unfortunately, one issue that is likely to be conspicuously absent during the Summit is the plethora of human rights abuses committed by ASEAN leaders. Eight of the 10 ASEAN nations, with the exception of Indonesia and the Philippines, will be represented in Sunnylands by either unelected, or controversially-elected heads of state. By inviting them onto US soil, President Obama will legitimise and validate their restrictive regimes.

President Obama will shake hands with ASEAN’s most corrupt Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak

Indeed the Sunnylands Summit will feature a veritable who’s who of Asia’s longest-serving dictators and autocrats. Among the guests will be Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who this year celebrates his 31st year in power as his political opponent, Sam Rainsy, continues to live in self-imposed exile. The Summit marks the Prime Minister’s first official invitation to the US and will present him with an excellent opportunity to claim international credibility ahead of the 2018 elections.

Others expected to attend include Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who will represent his nation after taking over the democratically elected government in 2014’s coup. Prayuth’s invitation has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations as the Prime Minister has overseen a dramatic rise in convictions for violating lèse-majesté laws, and holds medieval views on the role of women.

Also likely to be present is recently re-elected General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, a party hardliner, and Sultan of Brunei, Hassal Bolkiah, who last year announced he would introduce sharia law to his wealthy sultanate. Interestingly, the timing of this summit means that President Thein Sein will still be the representative of Myanmar, as Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy will not take the leadership reigns until late March.

In a year where rising censorship and political suppression is already characterising the region, this Summit is an opportunity to demand accountability. However, as the US vies with China for influence in the region, raising human rights issues puts them at a disadvantage.

China’s policy of apolitical aid and trade agreements allows them to easily and openly conduct business with some of the more corrupt regimes on the planet. To compete, the US cannot be too critical of its partners’ own records. Thus, far from being a catalyst for reform, the Sunnylands Summit will more likely to be used by many ASEAN leaders to claim international recognition of their restrictive regimes.

Caitlin McCaffrie has an interest in Southeast Asian regional politics and is currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where she works on fair trial rights and justice issues.


10 thoughts on “US President Barack Obama meets ASEAN Leaders in Sunnylands, California

  1. Human rights is a non-consideration in this US-ASEAN Summit. The main aim is geopolitics, using trade and investment as bait and inducement to garner as many ASEAN members possible to support to enhance the American pivot to Asia.

  2. “….the American pivot to Asia.”

    I much prefer the term pirouette .

    It implies a graceful move after taking a dump on the Middle East.

  3. Thank you Ms McCaffrie. Unfortunately, South East Asians have all chosen to take flight instead of fight for their own ” hak asasi” I was in Hong Kong and Macao this CNY. An Indonesian maid was delighted when I bought some Kueh from her speaking in Malay. I figured she could not see a Chinese in Hong Kong being halus to her in Bahasa. When I checked into a Macao hotel, I got my first freebie upgrade from a Malaysian Chinese, as she opened up my USA passport. HKG and Macao is filled with South East Asians cheap labor. Most of us could work our whole life in foreign nations, few would fall from the trappings in seeing their life better off than our parents. I do not see TPPA could in any way help improve human rights. Our South East Asian baby boommers and GenX leadership have let our own fellow countrymen down. There is nothing TPPA could help. After TPPA, I am sure another trade agreement with China would come about. Neither would cover human rights.

    We South East Asians have to fight for own rights..
    Ms McCaffrie have helped us a lot already by telling us there is a possibility of a fairer world.
    I could hardly even convince my siblings.

  4. Final months of Obama Presidency.
    Like all past Presidents, he wants to leave a “legacy” behind.
    For some unfathomable reason, he thinks that neoliberal trade
    agreements such as TPP and the equivalent with Europe would be

    P.S. Obama will also do more “signing statements” as the end of his
    Presidency nears.

  5. /// Conrad February 16, 2016 at 9:35 am
    “….the American pivot to Asia.”
    I much prefer the term pirouette .
    It implies a graceful move after taking a dump on the Middle East. ///

    And I rather prefer the term pusing (as in belakang pusing).

    It implies a rather disgraceful retreat from the Middle East where it muddled and muddied the waters there, and now turn to SEA to again meddle and muddy the troubled waters in the South China Sea.

  6. Referring to the video linked by Amb. Malott: Did anyone else see how Najib got distracted and started wandering off in a different direction before being ushered back to the right place? Huh. What’s up with that?

    I agree with the ambassador: Nothing special with the way he was greeted by Obama.

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