US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit: What to Expect

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US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit: What to Expect

A look at the summit’s objectives, format and potential outcomes.

US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit: What to Expect

U.S. President Barack Obama participating in a East Asia Summit photo in Myanmar in 2014.

Credit: Official White House Photo

From February 15-16, U.S. president Barack Obama will host Southeast Asian leaders as well as the ASEAN Secretary-General for a special summit at the historic Sunnylands Center in Rancho Mirage, California.

As of now, eight Southeast Asian leaders are confirmed to attend – Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Van Binh is reportedly set to attend in place of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, while Myanmar’s vice president Nyan Htun will attend on behalf of Prime Minister Thein Sein following a last minute cancellation.

While the Obama administration has been consistent in its commitment to Southeast Asia and ASEAN throughout its two terms in office, this U.S.-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands is historic as it marks the first time that Washington will host Southeast Asian leaders for a standalone summit in the United States.


In holding the summit, the United States has three objectives in mind. Though I have outlined these in a separate piece on the significance of the summit, it is worth briefly reiterating them here before getting to the format of the deliberations as well as the expected outcomes (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”).

First, as is the first time that the United States will host ASEAN leaders for a standalone summit, it is a powerful indicator of the Obama administration’s commitment to the subregion as well as ASEAN as a grouping. That is no surprise to those who have followed the evolution of U.S.-ASEAN relations over the past few years. Arguably the most significant aspect of the administration’s so-called rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been the greater share of attention devoted to Southeast Asia as well as ASEAN as a whole within U.S. Asia policy. Over the past few years, the United States has ratified the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, become the first non-ASEAN country to appoint a resident ambassador to ASEAN, and institutionalized annual U.S.-ASEAN summits.

Second, the summit provides an opportunity for the United States and ASEAN to deepen and broaden their engagement. As I have written previously, in November the two sides had elevated their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership. At the Sunnylands summit, both sides can build on this momentum and begin to make headway on a plan of action they laid out to implement the strategic partnership out to 2020.

Third and lastly, with Obama now in his last year in office and the U.S. presidential race heating up, the Sunnylands Summit is an ideal time for his administration to signal the importance of ASEAN to its successor.


Before delving into the summit itself, it is important to stress that the official interactions at the leader level will not be the only key engagements to watch. Other U.S. officials like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will also be at Sunnylands. There is also a senior officials meeting ahead of the summit.

In terms of the format of the summit iself, U.S. officials say the summit will comprise three main elements: a retreat session on economic issues, an informal working dinner, and a retreat session on political and security issues.

At the retreat session on economic issues, both sides will discuss ways for the United States and ASEAN to further boost trade and investment. The focus will be around innovation and entrepreneurship, with Obama and Southeast Asian leaders exchanging ideas on policy reforms needed to promote further growth and integration following the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community on January 1st this year.

Officials say there will also be conversations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with four ASEAN members already part of the pact (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam), three more looking to join it (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand), and three others as of now unable to join as they are not part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum (Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia).

The working dinner is designed to be more informal to share views on broader strategic developments. U.S. officials say they expect Obama to stress America’s commitment to the region as well as highlight the importance of good governance, accountable institutions and the rule of law.

The retreat session on political and security issues will address how the United States and ASEAN can address the key strategic and transnational challenges confronting the region, including maritime disputes, terrorism, trafficking in persons, climate change, and pandemic disease. The South China Sea will be a topic of conversation, with leaders discussing both general principles that should govern the management of lingering disputes there as well as recent events that have taken place like Chinese test flights at the newly constructed runway at Fiery Cross Reef. The Islamic State will be another key agenda item, especially given the recent attacks in Jakarta last month. They will also discuss ways to promote people-to-people ties, including through the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), the Obama administration’s signature professional development exchange program.

Ahead of the summit, there have been calls for the Obama administration to ensure that democracy and human rights are addressed as well given the poor record of some of the Southeast Asian nations that will be present. U.S. officials say the president will convey his concerns to Southeast Asian leaders both at the dinner as well as in any side bilateral conversations he has during Sunnylands. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has also met with civil society leaders before the summit. Nonetheless, hundreds of protesters are expected at Sunnylands, with some of them demonstrating against rights abuses in individual ASEAN states.


U.S. officials stress that this summit will be less formal relative to traditional U.S.-ASEAN meetings with strict agendas and tightly negotiated communiques, outcomes and deliverables. That said, an outcome document is expected that will highlight a set of agreed principles between the United States and ASEAN.

There will also be other separate engagements occurring both on the sidelines of the summit as well as following it that could produce outcomes of their own. For instance, the economic component of U.S.-ASEAN relations will be given further treatment at several other events, including an economic roadshow on February 17 involving U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and senior trade officials as well as a separate U.S.-ASEAN Business Council conference to be held in San Francisco after the Sunnylands Summit. That conference will feature, among other things, a keynote address by Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Individual ASEAN leaders will also have their own engagements as well during their visits to the United States apart from the Sunnylands summit. For instance, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who has already arrived in California, is scheduled to meet with Malaysian diaspora and students in Los Angeles as well as hold a roundtable meeting with companies and businessmen. He will also address the opening ceremony of the summit as Malaysia is the country coordinator for U.S.-ASEAN relations from 2015 up to 2018.