US President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders agreed on Friday to intensify US engagement in the region, but modified their ambitions by setting priorities, placing education, trade and forestry at the top of their list for cooperation.
Vice President Boediono, who represented Indonesia at the Second ASEAN-US Summit, told journalists that while ASEAN welcomed the prospect of building stronger relations with the US in many areas, Indonesia felt they should focus on a few select areas at first.
As leaders review the long “wish list” of proposals, ASEAN and the US should not be overtly ambitious, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.
The three areas chosen by the leaders corresponded with Indonesia’s proposal, Boediono added.
Comparisons to China’s increasing engagement with ASEAN were inevitable, with Indonesia pointing out that at the time of the summit there were more Indonesians studying in China than in the US, where Indonesian enrollment peaked at 14,000 students 20 years ago.
ASEAN and the US agreed that trade issues were complex, but this was all the more reason to address and resolve existing challenges.
Discussions on forestry were closely linked to the need to conserve forestry resources to help address global climate change issues.
The leaders dodged the sensitive issue of directly addressing the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, anticipating China’s objection to any reference to the US playing a part in any means of resolution. However, the joint statement included a veiled reference that stressed the need to maintain peace, maritime security, the flow of goods and freedom of navigation “in accordance with universally agreed principles of international law”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled China’s feathers in June when she offered US assistance to help resolve the territorial disputes, which many saw as a potential flashpoint that could disrupt vital international sea lanes.
“We are not that pessimistic,” Marty responded when asked whether the US was fostering its renewed interest in ASEAN as a means of countering China’s growing influence in the region. Indonesia is seeking to promote a “dynamic equilibrium,” for the region, he said.
Marty pointed to the example of the simultaneous admission of Russia and the US in the East Asia Summit (EAS) beginning next year as part of the equilibrium Indonesia was promoting.
The EAS is an annual event involving the 10 ASEAN countries along with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. ASEAN is driving the regional mechanism that seeks to promote cooperation and revitalize the Asia-Pacific community.
The US admission to the EAS also implies that Obama will be coming to Indonesia for the 2011 gathering. A senior State Department official confirmed this was the president’s intention.
This trip would be in addition to a visit to Indonesia that Obama plans on making later this year as part
of his major Asian tour, which would also include India, South Korea and Japan. Obama has yet to travel to Indonesia, a country where he spent four years as a child, since becoming president. He has cancelled two previously scheduled trips to Indonesia.
Another example Washington’s acceptance of ASEAN’s non-confrontation approach was demonstrated by the joint statement on Myanmar, which pushed for continued US engagement with the military regime, and called on the country to ensure fair and free elections in November.