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Obama, Southeast Asia leaders eye China and trade at California summit

Monday, February 15, 2016, 13:49 GMT+7

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif., Feb 15 - U.S. President Barack Obama will press leaders from Southeast Asia to boost trade and back common goals for the East Vietnam Sea during a summit starting on Monday that the White House hopes will solidify U.S. influence in the region.

Obama will also discuss curbing North Korea and plans to fight the Islamic State group during the two-day meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Sunnylands, a California resort.

The visit, at the same location where Obama once hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, is designed to demonstrate Washington's commitment both as a counterweight to Beijing and as an eager trading partner with ASEAN nations.

It also helps cement a legacy issue for Obama, who has championed a U.S. pivot to Asia during his presidency and is determined to present the United States as a Pacific power.

"We want to make very clear that the United States is going to be at the table and a part of setting the agenda in the Asia- Pacific in the decades to come," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters last week.

The first day of the summit is scheduled to focus on economic issues and trade, including discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which includes four of the ASEAN members: Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.

Others are interested in joining, and the White House wants to make sure the pact goes into effect.

On Tuesday, the leaders will discuss maritime issues including the East Vietnam Sea, where China and several Southeast Asian states have conflicting and overlapping claims.

Rhodes said Obama would deliver a tough message to China that disputes over the area must be resolved peacefully.

"We will continue to underscore the principle that these issues have to be resolved consistent with international norms and not through bigger nations bullying smaller ones," he said.

The challenge at the summit may be to get all ASEAN countries to agree on a strong statement on the issue. Analysts say China has put pressure on countries such as Cambodia and Laos not to sign on.

Pressure from Obama, and a message that the United States will continue to engage with the group, may counteract that.

"If the ASEAN leaders feel that the United States is investing in ASEAN ... that would encourage even the weakest, the most susceptible ASEAN states to sign on with their brothers to make these statements," said Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"No one in Southeast Asia wants the Chinese to run roughshod over their smaller neighbors." 



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