Between the presidential election and the fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, the political world is understandably paying very little attention to the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, which President Obama is hosting in California this week. And at a practical level, with few breakthroughs expected at the gathering, that’s fine.
But it’s occasionally worth pausing to appreciate just how much energy President Obama focuses on U.S. foreign policy as it relates to China. The Washington Post had a good piece yesterday noting that the president’s reasons for the summit with the leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations “may not be immediately obvious,” but the administration has broader goals in mind.
[Against a] turbulent backdrop, the Obama administration has sought to help shape the economic and strategic direction of the region because, knitted together, the countries boast surprising clout. Known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the group cumulatively represents the world’s seventh-largest economy; it is the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner and has a population twice the size of the United States’.The summit is the capstone of the administration’s bid to help develop ASEAN into an institution capable of addressing the region’s most pressing challenges – economic development, counterterrorism and climate change, to name a few. […]Underpinning the effort is the White House’s concern that without U.S. leadership, the diverse mix of nations will fail to coalesce around a common agenda and that some of them may be drawn closer to China, which also has sought to expand its influence in the region.
Evan Medeiros, who served as Obama’s senior Asia adviser from 2013 to 2015, told the Post, “Our strategy from the beginning was to move ASEAN’s center of gravity toward greater cooperation with the U.S.” Left unsaid was the White House’s obvious hopes of keeping that center of gravity away from greater cooperation with China.
To that end, the Post’s report addeed, the president has named a full-time U.S. ambassador to ASEAN. Obama is scheduled to become the first sitting president ever to visit Laos this year, and he’ll make a trip to Vietnam in May, adding to a record – Obama has already visited the region more than any of his predecessors.
All of this seems to fit into a larger pattern.
For Obama, U.S. trade policy should be focused on countering China. U.S. policy in the arctic is about China. U.S. policy in the Caribbean is heavily influenced by China. U.S. policy towards India comes against a backdrop of Chinese interest in the region.
As we discussed last year, it’s easy to get the impression that Obama sees a race underway for 21st-century primacy, and the president is taking a series of deliberate steps to make sure the United States is well positioned in a competition against China.
It’d be awfully nice to hear some of Obama’s would-be successors share their thoughts on the subject.