Patrick Cronin and Derwin Pereira – The East Asia Summit and Obama’s Asia legacy

The East Asia Summit, to be held in Vientiane early next month, offers U.S. President Barack Obama an opportunity to showcase his legacy to America’s relations with the Asia-Pacific. This is the pivot that has made the U.S. a key stakeholder in Asian outcomes during a transitional period marked by the assertive ascendancy of China.

Obama should highlight that legacy at the summit so that his successor can embrace strategic continuity in U.S.-Asian relations.

Looking ahead, the key to the rebalance is America’s ability to counter a spheres-of-influence approach to international affairs with an inclusive, rules-based regional approach. While military capability must underpin that approach for it to be taken seriously, the threat or use of force is a last resort.

Accordingly, diplomatic credibility requires taking a principled and consistent method that protects the U.S. and allied interests. On the heels of the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, the summit can send a firm message to China without alienating it through actions which Beijing views as nascent containment strategies.

Obama should be bold enough to transcend the multilateral summit’s agenda if it proves to be unduly restrictive. He should mobilize the region around a list of priorities that safeguard the core interests of nations committed to peace and stability — goals best pursued through building fair norms.

Economic security cannot but lie at the heart of America’s narrative.At one level, the global economic order that Washington supports must have something concrete to offer a country like Laos. The poorest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Laos is a country in quest of an economic destiny in a globalized world.

Without being directed at Laos in particular, Obama’s interventions must reaffirm America’s commitment to a world order that poor countries would wish to join. It is not sufficient to simply speak of globalization but to show how it is possible to preserve social fairness in market economies even as trade and investment create soft borders among nations.

At higher points of the trajectory of trade liberalization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be the gold standard by which America’s staying power will be judged in Asia.

The Vientiane forum will bring together the U.S. and the majority of other signatories — Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Obama and the leaders of those nations could signal to the U.S. Congress that the TPP promises to be the centerpiece of America’s economic engagement with the region.

Certainly, the trade pact needs to be paired with serious policies to ensure that citizens are not left behind by the global economy. Indeed, the U.S. needs new investments to create a labor force competitive in the 21st century. However, it would be disastrous if a fortress mentality were to develop at the top levels of America’s political leadership.

That would wreck the global trading system precisely when it needs U.S. leadership to shore up international order. A protectionist America would allow the balance of global economic power to shift gradually to countries that use their growing influence to create unilateralist rules for others. This will usher in a race to the bottom. Without the stabilizing elements of the global trade regime –in a word, interdependence — the world would be a less prosperous and more dangerous place.

It is trade, after all, that keeps competition with China within safe bounds. Even so, China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea, reiterated in its angry rebuff of the recent arbitral decision, make it clear that the U.S. faces a crucial test of its reliability in Southeast Asia.

Deterring adventurism through further military presence and security cooperation are among the next steps Washington should take to show that it stands by countries that believe in the rule of law. Obama should make it clear that the historic ruling is the new normal, and that the U.S. will continue to fly and sail wherever international waters permit. At the same time, the president should offer assurances to allies and partners that coercive moves that undermine the historic legal ruling risk a confrontation with the U.S.

But it is still possible for the president to present a strategic overview of the Asia-Pacific in which the American pivot will feature in regional responses to Chinese intransigence.

This presentation need not be confrontational. Following through on ASEAN-centered initiatives to stop illegal fishing, beginning with the South China Sea, could reinforce maritime domain awareness and lay the foundation for future cooperation.

Meanwhile, there is one area in which Washington is likely to garner uncontroversial support. This is the way in which it can aid Asian nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia as they face up to the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) penetrating the region. The mixed record of the counter-insurgency model in the Middle East could provide insights into what is likely to work (or not work) in the Asia-Pacific.

In this area, Obama will find an audience eager to hear what the U.S. could do to forge regional cooperation and ensure that ISIS is denied any sanctuary in Asia.

As Laos relinquishes its ASEAN chairmanship to the Philippines next year, Obama can bequeath to his successor an invigorated and effective, comprehensive engagement strategy with Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.