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Obama, ASEAN issue statement

By Chen Weihua in Washington and Zhang Yunbi in Beijing | China Daily USA | Updated: 2016-02-17 12:20

The first US-ASEAN Leaders Summit, which ended Tuesday, issued a joint statement covering a wide range of areas, from ASEAN centrality and economic prosperity to fighting terrorism and regional peace and security.

The statement, called the Sunnylands Declaration, is the result of the two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in the Sunnylands retreat in Rancho Mirage, California, the same site where US President Barack Obama hosted President Xi Jinping in June 2013.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Obama said the US and ASEAN are affirming their strong commitment to a regional order, where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld.

"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," he said.

That specific language such as the word "South China Sea", however, did not even appear in the joint statement posted on the White House website on Tuesday. It was not clear if it was because ASEAN nations could not come to an agreement.

Obama said the US will continue to help its allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities.

"And we discussed how any disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which the parties are obligated to respect and abide by."

Unlike China and many other nations, the US has not ratified the UNCLOS.

While the first-day meeting on Monday focused mainly on economic issues, including a US bid to boost bilateral trade and recruit more ASEAN nations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the second-day event focused mostly on regional security issues, including maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Ted Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at Washington-based Cato Institute, said that enhanced dialogue with the ASEAN countries, along with expanded US trade and investment ties with those nations, is a positive development.

"But trying to use ASEAN as a mechanism to counter China's policies in the South China Sea is both short-sighted and potentially dangerous," he said.

"Yet that appears to be what the Obama administration hopes to do with the current ASEAN summit and Washington's overall policy toward the association."

Obama, who spent some of his childhood years in Indonesia, spoke for about seven minutes at the press conference on the first US-ASEAN Summit. The White House press corps, however, seemed uninterested.

None of the questions asked during a 35-minute Q&A session was about the two-day meeting. Instead, Obama was bombarded with questions about how he will fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away on Feb 13; how he will deal with Russia amid the crisis in Syria; and his views on the 2016 presidential race, both on the Democrat and Republican fronts.

"I'm confident that whoever the next president may be will build on the foundation that we've laid, because there's strong, sustained bipartisan support for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region," Obama said.

Teng Jianqun, an expert on US studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said that Washington has been working on tackling economic cooperation, which Teng described as the weak link in ties with ASEAN countries.

Zhong Feiteng, an expert on AsiaPacific affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said the US arranged the gathering because it believes that the legitimacy of its engagement in the maritime problems will be boosted if ASEAN offers support or silent approval.

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