White House scrambles to prepare summit with Southeast Asian nations
The White House is warning that an upcoming summit between the United States and Southeast Asian countries could be perceived as a failure unless the U.S. business community can produce deals to announce at the event, The Cable has learned. To head off this development, the Obama administration has asked business groups to come up ...
The White House is warning that an upcoming summit between the United States and Southeast Asian countries could be perceived as a failure unless the U.S. business community can produce deals to announce at the event, The Cable has learned.
To head off this development, the Obama administration has asked business groups to come up with "deliverables" for the planned summit, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber, which is helping the administration plan for the conference, sent out a note August 26 to its Asia Task Force asking it to search for business deals between American companies and those of member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that could be signed at the conference. The ASEAN region is the fifth-largest market for U.S. exports, and bilateral ASEAN-U.S. trade reached U.S. $176 billion in 2008.
Without some "deliverables" of this kind, "the White House says it may be difficult to get the political support needed for the summit," the Chamber’s note said, adding that the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council was also asked to hunt for things to announce.
The White House has not yet determined an exact date or location for the summit, which is intended to follow up on issues raised at the first meeting President Obama held with all 10 ASEAN heads of state last November in Singapore. The summit will likely be scheduled for late September or early October, the Chamber said.
As for location, that depends. "If there are a significant number of deals that can be signed at the U.S-ASEAN Summit then it may be held in Washington. If not, the summit might be held in New York," the Chamber wrote.
Sources confirmed that the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council received the same basic message from the White House. We’re also told that there is concern that some heads of state from ASEAN member countries might not attend if the summit is held in New York, feeling the event has more significance if it’s held in Washington. Presumably, they believe being in the capital will give them a better chance of scoring meetings with top officials.
So, to recap: If there are not enough deliverables to announce, the White House will move the summit to New York. If the summit moves to New York, ASEAN heads of state won’t attend. If ASEAN heads of state don’t attend, the benefits of holding the summit at all will decrease even further.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the White House’s message was nothing unusual.
"The issue here is that business always provides input on deliverables for leaders’ meetings but leaders’ meetings don’t depend on whether there are business deliverables," he said. "The summit is vitally important to support broad U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia and Asia generally."
There are plenty of deliverables slated for the summit, and not just in the business sphere, Bower said. He added that he believed the Chamber’s note was probably poorly worded and did not match what he was hearing from the administration about the issue.
The Obama team, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, NSC Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, has been active in trying to increase the U.S. diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia.
Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both traveled to East Asia and Southeast Asia, and Obama himself attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore, all signs of high-level attention to the region.
Earlier this month, at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Vietnam, Clinton inserted the United States into a dispute between China and several Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims in the South China Sea, infuriating Chinese diplomats.
Regardless, some in the U.S. business community think the administration’s policy is all show and no substance, and they point to the summit preparations as evidence.
"This request clearly indicates that the ASEAN summit is little more than a stage for the White House to pretend it is both engaging ASEAN and helping industry," said one industry leader who received the Chamber’s note. "If ASEAN is important, then the summit is important, regardless of the deals to be signed. If the administration had actually helped with any deals then it wouldn’t be putting out a call to industry. It would already know what it had accomplished."
The White House declined to comment on the upcoming summit, and has not publicly issued any details of the timing or location of the summit.
"It is vital to the success of the summit for the administration to complete its planning and issue invitations as soon as possible," said Alexander Feldman, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. "The Council is working closely with the White House to spread awareness of the critical importance of trade with ASEAN to economic growth and job creation in the U.S."
UPDATE: Bower reports that Wednesday morning the White House announced the details of the summit. "The 2nd US-ASEAN Summit will be held on 24 Sept in New York. An extension of the 1st US-ASEAN Summit in Singapore, 2nd summit is scheduled to last 120 minutes, from 1-3pm. The White House has notified ASEAN leaders and now waiting for feedback," Bower said.