By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
The 2nd US ASEAN Summit in New York on September 24 is an important meeting but there are questions regarding who will attend. President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) of Indonesia, the incoming chair of ASEAN, hasn’t confirmed his attendance yet. Vietnam is still considering whether President Nguyen Minh Triet, who as head of government traditionally represents his country at the United Nations or Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will attend. Press reports from Bangkok have misreported that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is uncertain about attending – we understand he is confirmed, as are all the remaining heads of government from ASEAN except the Burmese who have opted to send their Foreign Minister — no surprise given the threat enhanced sanctions on Burmese leaders and the UN moving toward a Commission of Inquiry (COI) for crimes against humanity.
The real issue is SBY’s decision. He has the power to send a strong signal to his fellow ASEAN leaders, the United States and all of Asia. Should he decide to pass up President Barack Obama’s invitation to join the Summit in New York, there will be serious questions about where US-ASEAN relations are heading. The trajectory coming into New York looks very positive, building on a strong foundation and strengthening links between the US and ASEAN head of key meetings this Fall including the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting + 8 (ADMM) in Vietnam, the G-20 Summit in Seoul and the APEC Summit in Yokohama. Substantively, US ASEAN ties are sound and would remain so even if SBY doesn’t attend, but the signal of not attending has the potential to do real damage over time.
A strong US ASEAN foundation is vital as the region steps into new regional security and trade architecture. The table is set, and it is very important for Indonesia to demonstrate leadership. Every effort should be made to ensure SBY makes the trip to New York, including direct intervention by other leaders, especially President Obama. A call to Jakarta would be helpful. The truth is that a personal touch is due. President Obama has had every intention to visit Indonesia, but has been frustrated by schedule and domestic politics three times. Additionally, it is true that the White House was not able to make a decision on date and venue for the Summit until recently, giving ASEAN leaders short notice for such a major trip. The ASEAN heads of government had already scheduled a visit to Europe in early October for the Asia Europe Summit (ASEM), so the invitation requires an additional overseas trip to kick off an already packed second half of 2010. ASEAN may be disappointed too, that the Summit is being held in New York instead of Washington, D.C.
Still, the opportunity to institutionalize the US ASEAN Summit and hold the meeting on American soil within a year of the inaugural summit make the trip worth the effort. There are real issues to discuss including headliners such as security and trade, and getting alignment on these and other issues. Relationships take commitment and energy on both sides. Exploring the implications of holding a Summit without SBY or postponing the Summit should be a sobering proposition to all the leaders involved. Here’s to everyone doing what is needed to make the meeting work. It is gut check time for the US ASEAN relationship as we approach September 24 in New York.