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Q&A: Tang Siew Mun on the Legacy of the Obama Administration in Asean, One Year After the Sunnylands Summit


President Barack Obama, center, walks out with leaders of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for the official group photo, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif. President Obama and leaders of Southeast Asia nations are wrapping up a two-day summit conceived to show U.S. seriousness about staying engaged and keeping a high profile in a region where a rising China has rattled American allies. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The interview discusses the legacy of the Asean Sunnylands Summit, held one year ago, and the legacy of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Asean.

[Editor’s Note: Tang Siew Mun is the head of the Asean Studies Center a the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He was interviewed by VOA Khmer reporter Sok Khemara by email recently about the legacy of the Asean Sunnylands Summit, held one year ago, and the legacy of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Asean.]

VOA: What are the impacts of US-Asean relations one year on from the US-Asean summit?

TSM: The Sunnylands Summit stands as the high water mark of US-Asean relations, and now serves as a point of comparison and reflection on the future of this important bilateral relationship under the Trump Administration. Trump’s moves and policies towards Asean will inevitably draw close comparison with those of the Obama Administration.

What did the US and Asean achieve with the first ever summit in Sunnylands?

The Summit reaffirms the long standing partnership between the two parties, and was the first ever US-Asean summit in the US. But the fact that the Sunnylands meeting was only the fourth summit is telling about the state of the bilateral ties. That all of the four summits took place under Obama’s watch is also noteworthy and worrisome. Why were there no summits held prior to the Obama Administration? If “Asean” is considered as part of Obama’s legacy, then the bilateral relation may be relegated to the back burner under the Trump administration.

What were the major takeaways from the meeting?

The Sunnylands Summit will be remembered for introducing a new concept into Asean diplomacy with the inclusion of “respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in the joint statement.

Can Asean maintain the relationship with the US under Trump? What is going to happen to the US Asia ‘pivot’ policy?

Asean will continue to welcome and work towards sustaining the momentum of the US-ASEAN partnership. How far and what direction this partnership will take pretty much depends on Trump’s priorities and actions. The ball is literally in Washington’s hands.

Will China’s relationship to Asean improve if the US does not prioritize Asean relations?

Asean’s relations with China will continue to grow naturally notwithstanding US actions (or inaction). The critical question for US policy-makers is whether Washington is willing to bear the cost of engaging Asean to retain its primacy in the region, and to avoid ceding strategic space to China.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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