In the recently concluded 7th Asean-US Summit in Bangkok, it was widely reported that only the Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese heads of state showed up.
The former was the chair of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the latter is taking over as Asean chair and Laos is the current coordinator for Asean-US relations; hence, the absolute minimum participation. The seven other Asean heads of state simply sent representatives.
This is a rebuke to the US, owing to President Donald Trump’s decision not to attend the Asean meetings but instead send his new national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
As one diplomat reportedly said: “It’s not appropriate for Asean to send leaders when the US representation is not on parity”, though another diplomat stated that “It’s not a boycott, it’s just that other leaders have other meetings to attend to”.
These words showed aptly the diplomatic manoeuvrings that are the Asean meetings.
The question remains: is the Trump administration’s latest Asean snub an indication that the US is withdrawing from the region and giving up Southeast Asia to China?
After all, in the “high-stakes geopolitical chess match” between the US and China, Asean is a much-contested part of the game.
A comparison between the Obama and Trump administrations’ approaches to Asean in the military, political and economic sectors may be instructive here.
First, in the economic arena, one of the first things Trump did as president was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the Obama administration had fought hard to negotiate.
The TPP was taken by many to be a concrete sign of continued US economic engagement in the region, especially as part of Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.
In 2016, when the TPP was awaiting ratification, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had likened a US non-ratification to a bride who failed to arrive at the altar for the wedding, which would have hurt and damaged many stakeholders.
Trump has also since started a trade war with China, dampening regional economic prospects further.
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It should not be surprising that Trump’s “America First” policy is most robust in the economic sector since the US has viewed China as a direct threat to its domestic economy for quite a while.
For instance, Obama’s 2015 US National Security Strategy stated that the US “will take necessary actions to protect our businesses and defend our networks against cybertheft of trade secrets for commercial gain whether by private actors or the Chinese government”.
Under Trump, this economic threat from China is met head-on by the US.
By contrast, Obama had considered the TPP as a more indirect way to arrest the threat with the rest of the region, saying of the then-proposed trade deal: “When more than 95 per cent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules, opening new markets to American products”.
The Trump administration’s economic commitment towards the region is substantively different, notwithstanding Commerce Secretary Ross’s recent ironic protests to the contrary.
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Second, in the political sector, the Obama administration upgraded the annual Asean-US leaders’ meeting to the summit level since 2013, and Obama himself attended every Asean-US summit, bar the first.
It had also appointed the first resident US ambassador to Asean, while the US-Asean Sunnylands Summit in 2016 marked the first time the US had hosted Asean inside the country itself at the summit level.
However, unlike the TPP withdrawal, the Trump administration has not transformed this institutionalisation of the US-Asean relationship. Although the most senior representative for the recent Asean meetings was the commerce secretary, last year’s iteration saw US Vice-President Mike Pence attending, while Trump himself attended in 2017, even if he left early and skipped the East Asia Summit.
Seen in this light, the invitation to Asean leaders to the US for a special summit in the first quarter of 2020 recalls the November 2015 invitation during the 3rd Asean-US Summit to the February 2016 Sunnylands Summit to “commemorate” the establishment of the US-Asean strategic partnership and is not a mere “consolation prize”.
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Crucially, O’Brien’s address censured China for its bullying behaviour in the South China Sea, while stressing the US’ role “in helping Asean nations uphold sovereignty through efforts such as security assistance and joint navy exercises”.
This thereby reinforces US support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton had declared “a national interest” for the US during the 2010 Asean Regional Forum in Vietnam. Political support for Asean against China with regard to the South China Sea disputes thus continues.
Third, as the Obama administration helped to build up its allies and partners’ military capacity and militarily rebalanced to the region, so has the Trump administration generally sustained these measures.
As military analyst Collin Koh writes, recent US military drills in the Western Pacific in September, including the inaugural Asean-US maritime exercise, are “a manifestation of long-standing plans and initial training activities that have gradually grown in scope and sophistication” and signal “American commitment to a sustained military presence” in the region.
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After all, it was Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy that “calls out China for a range of malicious practices, warns about China’s international expansion and commits the United States to competing with and even combating China on every conceivable playing field”, as one analyst had put it.
US General Joseph Dunford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also called China a “near-peer competitor” in the military sphere.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” is not substantively different from the Obama administration’s rebalance, despite the concomitant change in the name from the US Pacific Command to the more unwieldy US Indo-Pacific Command.
Likewise, the pivot itself was “built upon the sensible policies of previous administrations”, as Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, says in his book on the rebalance.
Though doubts have been raised if both strategies had done enough, such is a matter of effectiveness and not withdrawal.
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Nevertheless, though the US remains committed to the region, especially in the military and political sectors, it is important for the Trump administration to still be seen as playing on the chessboard of Southeast Asia because at the end of the day, such images are arguably one of the most concrete outcomes of the Asean meetings.
The US should heed the warning by the Asean heads of state for what it is, rather than an “intentional effort to embarrass” Trump with the “boycott”. The 2020 special summit is hopefully the beginning step in this direction.