In its Friday afternoon news dump before Labor Day weekend, the White House announced that President Obama had invited the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to join him for a summit in New York on September 24. This will be the second U.S.-ASEAN summit, and the first to be held in the U.S.
President George W. Bush attempted to hold a similar meeting with the members of ASEAN toward the end of his second term, but the effort was ultimately dropped, as the administration was unable to figure out how to have a summit with ASEAN without extending an invitation to Burma, one of its members. By holding the forthcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, which ASEAN senior leaders will be attending anyway, the Obama administration is attempting to finesse this problem. Nonetheless, President Obama is unlikely to escape the Burma dilemma, particularly if the junta is represented at the UN by a member of its leadership, which is currently the target of U.S. sanctions. These sanctions, which are directed at individuals responsible for gross human rights violations in Burma, have been renewed twice by the Obama administration even as it attempted to engage with the military junta over the past 18 months.
Attempts to talk with the junta have failed to deliver anything approximating progress, and the administration has recently become tougher on Burma and made it known that it supports a UN Commission of Inquiry to examine allegations that the junta had committed crimes against humanity. In particular, the Obama administration has made no secret of their belief that the commission should focus its inquiry squarely on Than Shwe, the reclusive junta leader who last week surprised many Burma watchers by resigning his military post, presumably in order to move into a civilian leadership position. The State Department responded to Than Shwe's shedding of his military uniform by saying, "A dictator in civilian clothing is still a dictator."
Should Than Shwe decide to attend the UN General Assembly as Burma's head of state (despite resigning his military title, he remains firmly in charge), the U.S.-ASEAN summit would end up being quite awkward for the White House. While hiding behind the UN General Assembly allows the White House to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of hosting a retinue of Burmese thugs in America, our hosting arrangements with the UN headquarters also mean that the U.S. would be obliged to admit people who would otherwise be barred from the U.S. so that they may attend UN events. In other words, President Obama could still find himself standing next to one of the world's most reviled despots, less than two months before Than Shwe will probably force through a sham election specifically designed to institutionalize his and the military's authority indefinitely.
On several levels, deepening U.S. engagement with ASEAN makes a lot of sense: There are a number of important states in the regional grouping, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, who could tip the regional balance and who have been keeping a wary eye on China's rise. At the same, time, the odious presence of Burma—and the ASEAN policies of non-interference and consensus decision-making, which lead to mild responses to the situation in Burma—makes it a tricky act to pull off in practice. Previous administrations have attempted to thread the needle by paying lip service to cooperation with ASEAN as an institution, while relying primarily on bilateral relations or informal sub-regional discussions with the countries the U.S. actually wants to deal with. The Obama administration has made it clear that they intend to change this practice. The recent U.S. decision to join the East Asia Summit – which has ASEAN at its core – won the Obama administration praise across the region (with the notable exception of Beijing) and has strengthened that group's claim as the foundation of an emerging regional political architecture. But if the EAS starts to make progress towards its operational aspirations, it is only going to become more difficult for the U.S. to get closer to ASEAN while keeping its distance from Burma.