Sunnylands ASEAN-U.S. Summit


For an interview with ASG Vice President and Southeast Asia practice lead Meredith Miller, please contact Mary Clare Rigali at


ASEAN-U.S. Summit at Sunnylands: Overview and Expectations

  • On February 15-16 President Barack Obama is hosting the first standalone Summit between the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the Sunnylands estate in California. The ASEAN leaders will meet with Obama in an intimate atmosphere, where much of the program is reserved for leaders-only discussion on economic and security concerns.  

  • President Obama has elevated the United States’ relationship with ASEAN as the focal point of the administration’s rebalance to Asia. The White House hopes to ensure that stronger ties with the regional organization and the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership are enduring legacies.

  • The symbolism of Sunnylands, where President Obama’s historic summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping took place in 2013, has been well received by most ASEAN leaders, who have complained in the past of inadequate high-level attention and resources from the Unites States. The White House also seeks to showcase the strengths of the U.S. economy, particularly innovation and entrepreneurship, as platforms for future cooperation. A select number of U.S. CEOs will participate in this discussion. 

  • Substantively, the administration is aiming for agreement on principles for resolving challenging transnational issues and territorial disputes. In addition, an announcement of a new initiative to strengthen and highlight both exisiting and new cooperative initiatives in areas such as innovation, energy, business and policy, is expected.  

  • Following the Summit, the ten ASEAN Economic Ministers will travel to San Francisco and Silicon Valley with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to take part in an ASEAN “roadshow” to promote the benefits of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) for business and participate in a U.S.-ASEAN Business Council conference. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who cancelled a planned visit to California last year, is scheduled to speak at the event.  

Context for the Visit

In recognition of the upgrade of the ASEAN-U.S. relationship to a strategic partnership at the 2015 East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur, President Obama invited the ten leaders of ASEAN to join him February 15-16 at the Sunnylands estate. Previous Summits have been held on the margins of widely attended international meetings, where schedules are packed and distractions are many. By holding a stand-alone Summit in a retreat-like atmosphere, the White House has created precedent for dedicated interaction between the U.S. president and ASEAN leaders. Nine leaders are expected to attend. Myanmar President Thein Sein, who is stepping down shortly, is sending Vice President Nyan Htun.

Situated between China and India and at the crossroads of one of the world’s most important trading routes, Southeast Asia is an economically vibrant and geopolitically significant region. Collectively, ASEAN is the seventh largest economy in the world. The institution, founded in 1967 to deepen regional cooperation, plays an increasingly important role in driving broader Asia-Pacific integration through the East Asia Summit (EAS) and in helping to shape global issues of concern, including economic growth, regional stability, climate change, and curbing Islamic terrorism. The diversity of ASEAN members’ levels of economic development, strategic outlooks, and political systems has historically posed challenges to the body’s efforts to integrate and to the U.S. government and the private sector in attempting to engage the Southeast Asian countries as a unit. 

The Obama administration has taken important steps to strengthen relations with ASEAN, including joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, appointing a resident ASEAN ambassador in 2010, joining the annual ASEAN-led East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011, and establishing annual ASEAN-U.S. summits in 2012. The increase in engagement has been faciliatated in part by the improvement of U.S.-Myanmar ties. Restrictions on U.S. economic and diplomatic relations with Myanmar under the previous military regime has hampered the ability of U.S. policymakers to engage with ASEAN as a whole.

ASEAN took a significant step forward with the December 31, 2015 launch of the AEC, an important milestone in efforts to create a single regional market and production base, providing for the free flow of goods, services, capital, investment, and skilled labor across the region, although much remains to be done to fulfil this vision. For businesses, further liberalization and integration will provide new opportunities to invest and expand production in one of the fastest-growing and dynamic regions of the world. The recently launched AEC is critical for ASEAN members to diversify their economies to remain competitive and capture a greater share of global trade and investment flows while increasing intra-ASEAN trade and investment. These goals have taken on greater urgency in the face of a global economic slowdown and China’s economic contraction.

Enhancing economic cooperation is a central priority for both sides, with China's slowing growth providing fresh impetus to advance the AEC and strengthen ties with the United States, ASEAN's largest investor. ASEAN is particularly focused on attracting greater foreign direct investment (FDI) from the U.S. and other countries to fill the region’s estimated $60 billion per year infrastructure needs. The Obama administration also views deepening economic ties with ASEAN as critical to U.S. strategic interests. Although ASEAN-U.S. trade and investment has consistently grown over recent decades, the U.S. share of total trade and investment has significantly declined while China’s has skyrocketed. Although Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam are signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreeement (TPP), and Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have expressed interest in joining, the discussions at Sunnylands will focus on ASEAN-specific initiatives.

Most of the media interest surrounding Sunnylands is expected to focus on the narrative of geo-strategic competition between the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia. The most tangible recent examples of deeper ASEAN-U.S. cooperation have taken place in the defense and maritime arena, driven by rising concerns in the U.S. and in many ASEAN countries regarding China’s increasingly assertive stance towards its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with those of at least four ASEAN members. In 2015, the Obama administration pledged $250 million for the Southeast Asian Maritime Security Initiative to build capacity in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam; upgraded its defense cooperation arrangements with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore; and pledged $79 million to the Philippines in military aid.

What is on the Agenda?

The format for the Summit is intended to be intimate and relaxed with much of the time reserved for leaders to speak among themselves on shared issues of concern in the economic and security arena. It is likely that leaders will address the core areas of the new ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership: economic integration, maritime cooperation, climate change, emerging leaders, and women’s opportunities, with a special focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Key Topics of Discussion

Maritime Cooperation and the South China Sea:  The administration aims to strengthen the role and unity of ASEAN in peacefully resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, including through the completion of an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct.  Four ASEAN members, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have overlapping territorial claims with China in this long-standing territorial dispute. Tensions have risen in recent years, most recently following Beijing’s construction of artificial islands, with airstrips for military planes. Relations between Manila and Beijing have been particularly tense since the Philippines brought a case against China before an artibration tribunal in the Hague. A verdict is expected in the first half of this year and the Obama administration is encouraging ASEAN to take a stance supporting the right of claimants to seek international arbitration and asking both sides to abide by the court's decision. Building deeper ASEAN unity on the South China Seas will be challenging.  After Secretary Kerry’s January visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia reiterated its view that ASEAN members should settle maritime disputes bilaterally, without the involvement of ASEAN.

Countering Terrorism: President Obama and ASEAN leaders will almost certainly discuss the threat of ISIS and how to further deepen counter-terrorism cooperation. Fears of ISIS expanding its activities in Southeast Asia grew after the terrorist group claimed responsibility for the January 14, 2016 bombings and gunfire in Jakarta that left seven dead. Estimated numbers of Southeast Asians fighting with ISIS in the Middle East vary widely, but the potential for ISIS to influence domestic terrorist groups is high and the region is vulnerable to further attacks. On January 12, the Armed Forces of the Philippines downplayed concerns about links between armed groups in Mindanao and ISIS after a propaganda video surfaced online. On January 13, ASEAN national police bodies agreed to set up an information-exchange mechanism between regional law enforcement agencies to combat terrorist activities in the region. ASEANAPOL will partner with the United States and Australia in this effort.

Economic Integration:  President Obama and ASEAN leaders will also discuss a new initiative focused on how to create healthy eco-systems for innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish, including tackling tough issues like corruption, transparency, and intellectual property rights.  Announcements of new steps to support ASEAN integration, regional leadership, and clean energy are expected as well. There will likely be a particular focus on U.S. and ASEAN efforts to adapt to the new realities of the 21st century digital economy, as well as how to better support the development of female and youth entrepreneurs. 

Climate Change: Collectively, ASEAN is not a significant contributor of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but ASEAN members are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and adaption is a major concern. President Obama and ASEAN leaders are likely to discuss the outcomes from the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference and how the United States can best support the efforts of ASEAN members to achieve the goals outlined in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

Expected Schedule of Events:

February 15. ASEAN leaders will meet with President Obama at Sunnylands for an afternoon session focused on policies to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and to promote regional prosperity. The leaders will also discuss the region’s strategic outlook during a working dinner. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has reportedly agreed to lead the discussion on counter-terrorism. 

February 16. Leaders will discuss means to protect peace, prosperity, and security in the Asia-Pacific. The leaders will aim to issue a statement entitled the ‘Sunnyland Principles’ to present the topics of discussion and the outcome of the talks.

February 17. The ASEAN economic ministers and USTR Mike Froman will begin an AEC roadshow in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.  Indonesian President Joko Widodo, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, Air Asia CEO Tan Sri Dr. Tony Fernandes, and U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian will speak at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council’s conference, "Asia's Best Kept Secret: the ASEAN Economic Community."  

For interviews, please contact Mary Clare Rigali at