President Obama will play host to a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in early 2016 at the Sunnylands retreat in Southern California, a White House official said, a move aimed at deepening the United States’ strategic ties to the fast-growing region.
During a stop in Malaysia last month, Obama invited the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet with him in the United States “to continue important conversations about the Asia-Pacific region,” said Myles Caggins, a National Security Council spokesman.
“The president is pleased the leaders have accepted his invitation to gather at Sunnylands,” Caggins said. He declined to specify the dates, but Kyodo News, a Japanese wire service, said the meetings would take place Feb. 15-16.
Obama has used Sunnylands, a lush retreat in Rancho Mirage, Calif., as a summit site once before when he played host to Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. That summit took on a more relaxed and informal air than a typical summit in Washington and was aimed at trying to establish a good working relationship with Xi, who had recently taken office.
Ironically, the gathering of Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands is likely to irritate Beijing, which has competed with the United States for influence in the region. Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim nations, and China’s military aggression in the South China Sea are expected to be among the main topics at the summit.
The Obama administration has focused on Southeast Asia as part of a larger effort to rebalance U.S. foreign policy attention to the Asia Pacific to meet China’s rise. The ASEAN countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Several of those countries have clashed with China over the South China Sea, a key international shipping lane, where Beijing has constructed artificial islands that U.S. officials fear could be used as military installations. Obama warned Xi about China’s intentions during a U.S.-China summit at the White House in October, and the Pentagon dispatched a U.S. warship within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands in a challenge to Beijing’s claim on the waters.
In a visit to Manila last month, Obama announced new U.S. military aid to the Philippines as part of the effort to bolster partnerships in the South China Sea.
Also next year, the president is expected to make his first visit to Laos, which will assume the leadership chair of ASEAN. Obama met with Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong in Kuala Lumpur last month.