Amid China tensions, US scales up outreach to ASEAN

US-ASEAN summit

Amid escalating tensions around South China Sea, the US has launched a major diplomatic outreach to the ASEAN at their first-ever summit on the American soil. The summit is expected to encompass a broad range of issues, including security, trade and climate change. The meeting comes amid the US’ efforts to step up support to its Southeast Asian allies, fuelling China’s insecurities.

On the first day of the two-day summit that began on February 15, economy was the centre of focus. US President Barack Obama underlined that the burgeoning economic engagement between India and the 10-nation ASEAN is key to regional peace. The summit will also focus on combating terror and also address China’s growing assertion in the region.

Mr Obama underscored that growth should be sustainable and inclusive. “The discussions touched on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal signed by Obama earlier this month and that currently includes four of the ASEAN nations and could add others,” according to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. “The potential for deepening our economic engagement is tremendous,” she added.

“Western companies should help foster technical innovation in small- and medium-sized companies in developing countries,” according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who participated in discussions on entrepreneurship with ASEAN leaders.

“I think the core promise of this generation is not just in consumption of technology…but it’s to create world-class technology, to be accessible to entrepreneurs in those countries,” Mr Nadella said. “They can go on to create great digital services and products, and of course those digital services and products, as these economies diversify, are going to find new markets, new growth for those countries,” he added.

The US also made a strong pitch for expanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It has been trying to convince those ASEAN countries which are not a part of the bloc to consider joining the trade bloc.  ASEAN is crucial for the growth of many US businesses. US is the largest foreign investor in the region, with investment totalling $226 billion presently. The region is also the fourth largest export market for US, which contributes over half a million jobs in the US.

China factor

China had recently protested the involvement of US ships near the disputed South China sea region. ASEAN is key to the Obama administration’s US rebalance of Asia. Some analysts have suggested that the US could support ASEAN’s efforts by negotiating a ‘Code of Conduct’ with China. This could help ease regional tensions.

With the rise of terror groups like the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, the countries would seek to intensify collaboration with the US in combating the extremist outfit. The recent bombings by the IS in Jakarta and the presence of the IS in Malaysia has raised serious concerns among the ASEAN countries.

This would be the last ASEAN summit for President Obama as he will complete his tenure this year end.

(Sridhar Ramaswamy contributed inputs for this article)

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