BRUNEI — The 10 leaders from the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) begin their annual meeting on Wednesday. Heads of government from other countries, such as China, Japan and South Korea, will join them the following day at the East Asia Summit. But this year's meeting will be without U.S. President Barack Obama, who canceled amid the ongoing budget standoff in Washington.
The back-to-back ASEAN and East Asia summits bring the leaders into the same rooms to discuss strategic, political and economic issues of common concern.
President Obama also canceled Asia trips twice in 2010, and some allies are questioning the administration's oft-repeated rhetoric about America's pivot to the Pacific.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Saturday in Bali, Indonesia, at the APEC economic leaders' meeting that despite Obama's absence at APEC and ASEAN, "I believe the United States still stands tall and will not diminish one iota the influence or the direction that we are fighting to move in."
The former Pacific commander of the U.S. military, retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, says Asians should not look at this latest cancelation by the president as a snub amid the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.
“It's no reflection on Asia that these problems have developed at a time when the president simply can't be outside of Washington for the very long period of time it would take,” says Blair.
The big issue
ASEAN itself is divided on one of its most critical issues: how to approach the disputes involving China and several ASEAN members over atolls in the South China Sea.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says participating countries will likely seek the lowest common denominator.
“Some of them are claimants, some of them are not. Some have very close relations with China and they don't want to upset those relations with China by taking a hard line on the South China Sea. Some countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, want a very strong, robust and comprehensive code of conduct. So ASEAN has to arrive at a bottom line consensus which keeps all the members happy,” says Storey.
When formal discussions about a maritime code of conduct started between Southeast Asian and Chinese representatives last month, officials from Beijing - according to Storey - “ran rings around” [handily outmaneuvered] ASEAN.
“Although it was reported in the media that this was a breakthrough, in fact it was really a diplomatic victory for China in that they were essentially able to dictate the pace and the scope of future talks. The net results of which is that these consultations will be protracted. They may last one or possibly two, even three years,” says
An associate professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, Wang Dong, says anyone expecting a short-term conclusion is naive.
"Can you imagine that dispute will be resolved in the next year, two, three years? It's impossible because it's so complicated. And it involves so many - China and some of [the] ASEAN countries. And even some other regional countries, like Japan, also want to take advantage of China's disputes with [the] Philippines, with Vietnam. And, similarly, the United States also has a stake in that,” says Wang.
At stake is 80 percent of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims.
At the close of last year's ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, in-fighting over how to approach the maritime territorial dispute led to the group's failure to issue a joint communique - the first time that had happened in ASEAN's 45-year history.
Professor Wang Jianwei, head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has mentioned that China and ASEAN countries share a "common entity with a common destiny." He says this emphasizes that Beijing's relationship with ASEAN countries is much more broad than these disputes over the South China Sea.
As countries head into talks this week, a key issue is whether their maritime territorial disputes will again prove to be a sticking point, despite shared interests in trade and economic growth.