Najib: summit shows Asean vital to US

Sunnylands, California. Source: Flickr

As the US-Asean leaders summit commences in California, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said it represented US recognition of the diplomatic, economic and strategic importance of Southeast Asia.

“It is a significant meeting for both Asean and the United States. It is the first summit after the elevation of the dialogue relations to a strategic partnership in November last year in Kuala Lumpur,” he said from Sunnylands. Previous Asean and related summits were hosted by Malaysia.

Najib said the two-day summit would allow leaders to reinforce their strategic partnership and on the way forward in their relations with Washington, he said. US President Barack Obama and the 10 Asean leaders are expected to deliberate on Asean’s economic growth of based on innovation and entrepreneurship on the first day. This will include a discussion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia have already signed, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed said the leaders would discuss the promotion of digital economy and clean technology initiatives at the economic session. “There will be open discussion and a free flow of ideas among the leaders,” he said.

The second day is due to be spent discussing political and security issues, including counterterrorism, transnational challenges and the South China Sea. The US will try to persuade Asean to take a more united stand on the contested sea, through which an estimated US$5 billion in trade passes each year.

Obama will press the leaders to boost trade and back a common stance on the South China Sea during a summit the White House hopes will solidify US influence in the region.

“We want to make very clear that the United States is going to be at the table and a part of setting the agenda in the Asia-Pacific in the decades to come,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

Rhodes said Obama wanted to make it clear to Beijing that maritime disputes would be resolved peacefully.

“We will continue to underscore the principle that these issues have to be resolved consistent with international norms and not through bigger nations bullying smaller ones,” he said.

China has put pressure on smaller countries like Cambodia and Laos which have no claim to the South China Sea to block any attempt to take an Asean-wide position.

Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, will be hoping the US can persuade them to develop a regional strategy to solve the intractable dispute.