President Obama was the belle of the ball this week as members of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pushed him to pay closer attention to the region, as they face pressure from giant neighbor China.
As the two-day conference came to a close in California on Tuesday, the group's leaders urged Washington to make a bigger showing in the region as the alliance hopes a greater U.S. presence will temper China’s assertive stance toward the disputed South China Sea territory.
The White House’s decision to host ASEAN leaders in the U.S. for the first time at the same venue where Obama hosted an informal summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, symbolizes the pivotal role the U.S. can have with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Obama and the ASEAN leaders spent Tuesday discussing regional security issues, including counterterrorism and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built up islands in the region with airstrips that can handle military aircraft and has also sent oil-drilling rigs into the area. The moves have alarmed the other nations’ with competing claims in the area, and brought a response from Obama.
"We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas," Obama said at the end of the conference according to a Reuters report.
The U.S. continues to maintain its stance that the disputes to be resolved peacefully according to international law. It’s a position stance Obama emphasized Monday in welcoming leaders of ASEAN's 10-nation bloc: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
"The United States and ASEAN are reaffirming our strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld," he said.
Le Luong Minh, a Vietnamese politician and chairman of the association, said the U.S. is one of ASEAN's "important dialogue partners," the Associated Press reported. He called the summit an "excellent opportunity to exchange our views" on important issues.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said ASEAN leaders hope Obama's attention and priority toward the Southeast Asian grouping will be continued and sustained by future U.S. presidents, Malaysia's Bernama news agency reported. He said 10 ASEAN leaders acknowledged that the grouping's relationship with the U.S. was as important as its relationship with China,
“All parties must exercise self-restraint, avoid increasing tensions in the disputed areas," he told Malaysian journalists here Monday, Bernama reported.
While some of ASEAN’s members want to see a more muscular U.S. presence, it is unlikely they will ditch China as Beijing is their main trading partner and a political backer of several of the more authoritarian members of the bloc.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged Washington to use a stronger voice and "more practical and more efficient actions" to prevent militarization and island-building in the South China Sea, the Hanoi government said.
Still the ASEAN members at least continue to capture Washington’s attention as Obama will visit Vietnam in May during a trip to Asia, the White House said on Monday. Obama accepted the invitation by the Vietnamese prime minister during a meeting at ASEAN.
Human rights protest
While much of the talk among the U.S. and ASEAN members inside the Sunnylands Center dealt with China’s power, voices were raised outside the resort as human rights groups pushed the U.S. to be more assertive on human rights.
Hundreds of demonstrators protesting human rights abuses gathered in the California desert near Rancho Mirage, Calif. To protest the dismal human rights record in some of the ASEAN nations.
A number of demonstrators were naturalized Americans who formerly lived in Southeast Asia. A group called for the end of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s three-decade-long domination of the government.
"We are here today to send a clear message to Hun Sen that we don't support communists, we don't support a dictator,” Bona Chhith of the Cambodian American Alliance told Voice of America. “We don't support a tyrant. Hun Sen must go,"
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Obama should seize this “golden opportunity to inject some long-missing values into his much-trumpeted Asia policy.”
“He should not only demand the release of all political prisoners but, standing side by side with the Vietnamese prime minister, also call for the country to follow Burma’s example and hold genuine multiparty elections,” Adams wrote in a blog post.