by Tim Giang
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a two-day summit on February 15 and 16 at Sunnylands Resort in Rancho Mirage, California. It was the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit held in America and, in an indication of the significance of this conference, U.S. president Barack Obama presided over the meetings. Open navigation of the South China Sea and promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership dominated the agenda of these meetings. While there was a statement of mutual understanding to come out of this conference, the summit also revealed the political unrest and complexity of the social and political context found in Southeast Asia.
The focal point of the summit centered on the tensions around the South China Sea that have resulted from Chinese island building and claims to sole sovereignty of this strategic body of water. The summit culminated in a statement from all nations of ASEAN declaring “Mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and political independence of all nations.” The statement did not explicitly reference Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, but by speaking with one voice the ASEAN countries can hope that it might lead to a lessening of tensions in the area.
One of the major outcomes from these meetings was the commitment from the U.S. to increase its trading presence in Southeast Asia. ASEAN and the U.S. established the “U.S.-ASEAN Connect, a new U.S. government initiative which aims to utilize a network of three hubs across Southeast Asia – in Singapore, Jakarta, and Bangkok – to better coordinate U.S. economic engagement in the region and connect entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses.” Many countries believe that if the U.S. is able to effectively trade with Southeast Asian nations, it will lessen their dependence on Chinese trade and demonstrate the need for multilateral control of the South China Sea.
While the ASEAN Summit appeared successful to many, thousands of protesters gathered to express their frustrations. The majority of protesters were Cambodian-Americans who are upset over Cambodian leader, Hun Sen, who has held power for over 30 years, while being accused of consistently violating human rights. Additionally, many Laotian-Americans complained about Vietnam encroaching on Laotian territory. Many human rights leaders say that aside from the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia; the majority of ASEAN nations have leaders that are “anti-democratic and ruthless.” Ultimately, summits like these help draw attention to a plethora of issues that usually get overlooked in western media. Indicative of this, the only sound bite from the summit that made U.S. headlines was Barack Obama declaring that Donald Trump would not be president.
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Joint Statement of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit: Sunnylands Declaration, (February 16, 2016). Accessed on April 14, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/16/joint-statement-us-asean-special-leaders-summit-sunnylands-declaration.
 Prashanth Parameswaran, “What Did the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Achieve?” The Diplomat (February 18, 2016): Accessed April 15, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/what-did-the-us-asean-sunnylands-summit-achieve/.
 Mike O’Sullivan, “ASEAN Summit Draws Strong Protests” Voice of America (February 16, 2016): Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.voanews.com/content/asean-summit-draws-strong-protests/3192710.html.
 Rob Reynolds, “ASEAN Legitimizes human rights violators: Protesters” Al Jazeera (February 16, 2016). Accessed April 15, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/asia/2016/02/asean-leaders-gather-summit-protests-160216045018380.html.