U.S. President Barack Obama will host a two-day summit with ASEAN leaders on Monday at the Sunnylands Center in California. The meeting, the first of its kind in the United States, is expected to be part of Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy.
However, U.S. media and experts believe that the free-of-protocol meeting is doomed to yield nothing substantial due to differences between the United States and Southeast Asian countries.
MORE SYMBOLIC THAN SUBSTANTIAL
Asia-Pacific rebalance is one of the priorities of Obama's foreign policy. The U.S. government regards it as a long-term strategy, Daniel Russel, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said last month.
However, Obama is running out of time during his presidential term, and it is hard to tell whether the next administration will continue Obama's policy.
By hosting the summit after their last meeting in Kuala Lumpur just no more than three months ago, the president is sparing no efforts to signal the importance of ASEAN to his successor, trying to build solid ties with ASEAN countries as one of his remarkable diplomatic legacies.
William Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, told Xinhua that Washington D.C. is not a great place for a meeting this time of year.
Instead, Sunnylands is a good venue for informal personal interactions among leaders, said Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings.
As a matter of fact, a number of ASEAN countries have been going through changes in politics.
Along with the power transitions in Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, Thailand is debating on revising the constitution after the 2014 coup. Meanwhile, the Philippines will also hold a presidential election in the next few months as Benigno Aquino III, the country's 15th president, steps down from office.
The U.S.-ASEAN summit will not yield any major announcement or policy initiatives, said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Center and concurrently senior fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute based in Singapore.
Tang's opinion was echoed by Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East West Center, who said that any joint statement of the participants would be so bland as to be almost inconsequential, adding that Obama just hopes to convince the ASEAN countries to support the U.S.-led regional order more strongly.
The summit is more symbolic than substantial, said Odd Arne Westad, S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at Harvard University.
ASEAN NOT TO TAKE SIDES
According to the U.S. Department of State, maritime disputes, trade and other sensitive issues are on the summit agenda.
On the issue of the South China Sea, U.S. media said Obama may wish to reach consensus among all ASEAN member states in order to issue a statement at the Sunnylands summit that will touch on China.
However, all the attending countries have complex relations with China, most of which are very positive, Kirby said.
There is a basic divide between mainland Asia (Thailand, Malaysia) and maritime Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam), Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote to the National Interest magazine.
Speaking with visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said "for the South China Sea issue, we should ... try to encourage the countries concerned in the dispute to continue negotiations with each other because ASEAN has no rights to measure land for any sides."
Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said the countries in Southeast Asia traditionally have taken a neutral stance in the tussling between super powers, adding that ASEAN would also hold equal-level summits with Russia and India this year.
Actually, it has been Obama's stock-in-trade to hold such a summit with regional groups, including the U.S.-Gulf summit in Camp David in May 2015.
Ironically, showing "an unmistakable signal of dissatisfaction with their U.S. ally," only two out of six leaders of Persian Gulf states attended the U.S.-Gulf summit, which was called "Obama's lonely Gulf summit" by the Washington Post.
Beyond all doubt, Washington held the summits out of its own interest while turning a blind eye to others' demands.
When it comes to the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit, it should be noted that the ASEAN countries demand various benefits from the United States, said Tang Zhimin, dean of International College and director of China-ASEAN Studies Center at Panyapiwat Institute of Management.
The priority of ASEAN leaders is to do what they think is the best for the interest of their individual countries, Clayton Dube, director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, told Xinhua.
"The U.S. will win more friends if it focuses more on for example economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries," said Oh.
Against the current backdrop, the U.S. meeting will hardly yield a chorus of voices.