By Dylan Kean
President Barack Obama traveled to Myanmar’s capital of Naypyitaw November 12-14 for his first ASEAN and East Asia Summits in two years, as budget battles in Washington had kept the President from making the trip last year. His return to the region for Myanmar’s first time as ASEAN chair offered renewed affirmation that ASEAN is, and will continue to be, crucial to the U.S. rebalance to Asia.
On the heels of signing a bilateral climate change agreement with China at the Asia-Pacific Economic Community summit where both Beijing and Washington set new greenhouse gas reduction targets, Obama delivered a strong message to ASEAN countries that they too should set ambitious, but sustainable, environmental targets for the future. The ASEAN joint statement on climate change reaffirmed commitments by member states to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change and set the December 2015 conference in Paris as a goal for ASEAN countries to decide on their own post-2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The East Asia Summit (EAS) included several important takeaways, including a strong condemnation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in the chairman’s final statement. Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s proposal for an EAS Symposium on de-radicalization set for early 2015 was well-received and represented an important step toward fighting violent Islamic radicalization at its roots.
Despite adopting a joint statement on a response to the Ebola outbreak, Southeast Asian leaders have been reluctant to send medical professionals or troops abroad to help contain the spread of the virus. While ASEAN could have stepped up its assistance, a commitment to provide financial assistance is still a positive sign.
One of the highlights of President Obama’s trip this year was his first face-to-face meeting with newly elected Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Obama praised the newly-elected leader for promoting pluralism and religious diversity in his election campaign and restated the need for strong international norms to maintain maritime security.
During the EAS meeting, Jokowi made a statement outlining five pillars supporting his plans to build Indonesia into a “global maritime axis.” Two of these key pillars – improving maritime diplomacy and developing Indonesia’s maritime defense forces – could have a significant impact on the conflict in the South China Sea. A strong Indonesian position on defending sovereign claims could help push negotiations forward for a code of conduct with China. However, likely due to a lack of consensus, the joint EAS statement made no mention of any significant progress towards mitigating maritime disputes.
On the sidelines of the EAS, President Obama also held bilateral meetings with other regional leaders. He and Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung sat down to discuss the deepening of trade and security relations between the two countries. Dung promised to help speed up negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but also asked the United States to consider a grace period for developing countries to implement necessary reforms to meet their trade obligations.
Obama also had a meeting with Myanmar president Thein Sein, during which he said Myanmar’s reform process was “real but incomplete,” and pressed his Myanmar counterpart on the need for Myanmar to have free and fair elections in 2015, revise its constitution, complete negotiations on a ceasefire with the country’s armed ethnic groups, and improve its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. His meetings with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi included a balance between praise for the progress Myanmar has made in the past several years and concerns about the need for the country not to backslide in its transition to greater democracy.
President Obama also attended the 2nd U.S.-ASEAN Summit where he praised the region’s growth and the U.S. business community’s commitment to investing in ASEAN’s future. Nina Hachigian, the new U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, used the opportunity to stress the importance of U.S.-ASEAN cooperation in the areas of human rights, trade, maritime security, climate change initiatives, and other regional priorities.
For the United States, the summits provided a platform to highlight opportunities for greater cooperation with ASEAN, while allowing Obama to offer constructive criticisms of Myanmar’s somewhat stalled reform process. With crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe threatening to divert U.S. attention from the region, and countries around the world seemingly working on their own pivots to Asia, the primary objective of Obama’s visit was to deliver a clear message: the United States is not going anywhere.