China, South China Sea top issues as Obama greets ASEAN nations for summit

The Associated Press

Maria Mendoza cleans and vacuums around the head table as last minute preparation are made at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., site of today’s meeting of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. President Barack Obama is hosting the ASEAN leaders, it is the first meeting of its kind on U.S. soil, as he looks to deepen ties with the region’s fast-growing economies. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

RANCHO MIRAGE, California (AP) — President Barack Obama and the leaders of Southeast Asian nations are gathering in California for an unprecedented two days of talks on economic and security issues amid China’s assertive presence in the region.

This is the first time the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are meeting in the U.S.

China is not a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

The summit was conceived as part of Obama’s mission to raise the U.S. profile and help set the agenda in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, where China’s territorial claims over disputed waters have raised international concerns and led to friction with ASEAN countries.

The association’s member countries make up the seventh-largest economy in the world, the White House said. ASEAN countries together represent the U.S.’ fourth-largest trading partner. Trade between them tops $226 billion.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the nations are important partners on issues ranging from the economy to maritime security and counterterrorism to combatting the threat from climate change.

Obama planned to focus Monday evening’s talks on the economy, specifically on using innovation and entrepreneurship to promote prosperity in the region. After a working dinner, the conversation shifts Tuesday to regional security issues, including the South China Sea and counterterrorism, before the summit concludes at midday.

China says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands, including with airstrips, to assert its sovereignty. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim land features in these potentially resource-rich waters, which are an important conduit for world trade.

Though not a claimant, the U.S. has spoken out against China’s conduct and has angered Beijing by sailing Navy ships near some of the artificial islands. It has argued for the maritime rights issue to be resolved peacefully and is looking for ASEAN to take a unified stance by calling for the disputes to be resolved based on international law.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement among the U.S.; ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam; and seven other nations, will likely be discussed. The pact is Obama’s signature trade achievement, and he has sought to sell it to skeptical lawmakers and interest groups as an opportunity for the U.S. to shape the region’s trade rules, not China.

Congress, however, must ratify the deal, and that outcome remains in doubt.

Terrorism inspired by the Islamic State group is of increasing concern in the region. Eight people were killed during assaults last month in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, the first major attack there in six years. Police said the attackers were linked to IS.

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, have all reported citizens traveling to fight in Iraq and Syria, and several small militant groups in the Philippines have pledged allegiance to IS.

Obama also plans to raise the issue of good governance and adherence to the rule of law. ASEAN members run the gamut of political systems, from open democracies in Indonesia and the Philippines to communist governments like Vietnam and Laos that ban political dissent.

Human rights advocates have faulted the U.S. for inviting unelected leaders, like Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a May 2014 coup. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has used violence and intimidation against political opponents, is making his first official U.S. visit during his 31-year tenure as prime minister.

Four of the leaders attending are “lame ducks,” like Obama, with little time left in office. One of them, Myanmar’s Thein Sein, was skipping the summit and sending a deputy instead.


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.


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