, RANCHO MIRAGE, United States, Feb 16 – President Barack Obama welcomed Southeast Asian leaders for a California desert retreat Monday, with talks focused on how to counterbalance China’s increasing muscle in the region.
Obama hosted representatives from 10 ASEAN countries at Sunnylands, a secluded, sprawling resort beloved by US presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.
Hoping to increase pressure on China over land grabs in the South China Sea, Obama opened the meeting by declaring a US-ASEAN “shared goal of building a regional order were all nations play by the same rules.”
The White House sees this summit, and the prestigious venue, as an opportunity to champion Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and ASEAN’s growing importance, before the president leaves the White House in January 2017.
“As president I’ve insisted that even as the United States confronts urgent threats around the world, our foreign policy also has to seize on new opportunities, and few regions present more opportunity in the 21st century than the Asia-Pacific,” Obama said opening the summit.
“That is why early in my presidency I decided that the United States, as a Pacific nation, would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long term role in the Asia-Pacific.”
But the more immediate aim will be to secure a united front against China’s island-building and military build-up in areas that are subject to myriad territorial claims.
The White House, betting that China does not want to be seen as a regional bully, has mustered an informal coalition of Pacific allies to demand that Beijing respect the rule of law.
That effort will deepen at Sunnylands on Tuesday, where leaders are expected to discuss a common response to a key UN court ruling on the issue that is expected in April or May.
The UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration will decide whether China’s claim to a vast expanse of sea inside a “nine dash line” has legal merit.
A collective US-ASEAN endorsement of the court’s verdict – whatever the outcome – would heap pressure on China, which refuses to recognize the court.
They “hope that, if not immediately, then over time, the Chinese will not want to be isolated and an international pariah, a country that doesn’t agree with international law,” said Ernest Bower of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.