Trump’s diplomatic blunder with ASEAN makes way for China’s dominance

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By Trixia Apiado

December 2, 2019

Source: Department of ASEAN Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand
U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, fifth from the left with ASEAN leaders and ministers.

NANJING, China — From October 31st to November 4th, 2019, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its 35th Summit in Bangkok, Thailand. The summit was a key meeting for the Asia-Pacific region this year, especially considering the cancellation of the 2019 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Chile slated for mid-November. Despite significant U.S. interests in the region, President Trump did not attend.

The U.S., as a major power in the region, is an expected presence each year. Former U.S. President Obama, whose tenure emphasized the “pivot to Asia” strategy, never missed a summit. In contrast, this is the second time President Trump has missed an ASEAN summit. Last year, he sent Vice President Mike Pence as his proxy to Singapore. This year, he sent National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. ASEAN countries have interpreted President Trump’s decreasing attention as a snub to the region.

Sending O’Brien represents a continuing trend of downgrading U.S. representation in ASEAN affairs. This is the first time a non-cabinet official represented the U.S. in ASEAN meetings. In recognition of diplomatic symmetry, most ASEAN countries either skipped, or sent foreign ministers in their stead, to the ASEAN-U.S. summit. 

In contrast to the U.S., China has maintained a strong presence in ASEAN meetings. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pushed for having a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (SCS) by 2021. China’s basic demands for the COC include the invalidity of the UNCLOS treaty in the SCS and no joint military exercises nor resource exploration with countries outside the region without the approval of all signatories. If signed, the COC will legitimize China’s dominance by countering the 2016 UN tribunal decision that determined the 9-dash line to be unlawful and establish China as the only maritime superpower in the SCS. In addition, China supports the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a multilateral free trade agreement initiated by ASEAN and scheduled to be signed by 2020. In 2017, the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is largely considered the U.S.-led multilateral trade agreement comparable to RCEP. The U.S. is not a party to RCEP. Clearly, China is making Southeast Asia a strategic priority. China needs to push the U.S. out of the region to be an effective regional power. As Trump’s recent absence shows, China is succeeding.  

Although the ASEAN meetings are largely symbolic photo opportunities and do not result in binding treaties or agreements, these meetings are important in terms of strategic engagement in the region. The ASEAN way of socializing and dealing with regional challenges relies upon regular meetings. Although President Trump may not be carrying out the “pivot to Asia” strategy that President Obama began, the Asian region still holds primacy in the Trump White House. Decreasing participation in ASEAN may be detrimental to the success of the United States’ Asia policy down the line.

Following the ASEAN Summit, the Trump administration realized its diplomatic misconduct and invited the ASEAN leaders to the United States in 2020 for a special summit as damage control. President Obama conducted a similar special summit in 2016 as a celebration of the deepening relations between ASEAN and the U.S., as well as Obama’s commitment to multilateralism. However, Trump’s approach to power politics in Southeast Asia has undermined the Obama era’s diplomatic progress in the region.

Fortunately, Trump’s upcoming special summit with ASEAN is a potential opportunity to repair ASEAN-U.S. relations. But only if the special summit happens. With the U.S. voting public going to the polls soon and President Trump’s continuing impeachment problems, there is a chance this special summit could be backtracked. Such a  reversal would be catastrophic. Regardless of chaotic domestic politics, the U.S. administration is still responsible for maintaining strategic diplomatic relationships abroad. ASEAN countries may not wait for the U.S. to get its house in order first. With the rise of an aggressive China and weakening ASEAN centrality, Southeast Asian nations need plans and resources for security. The region requires investments for development and military protection. The United States can provide alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and a limited U.S. military presence can assist in deterring more aggressive actions from China.

Just as the Trump administration can do more to show their value for ASEAN, ASEAN countries should recognize and understand that the U.S. is still committed to the region. On November 4th, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attended the Indo-Pacific Business Forum on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. Ross emphasized the United States’ commitment to trade and investment in the region.  On November 18th, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper followed up on security meetings with Vietnam, speaking against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and announcing the transfer of a retired U.S. Coast Guard cutter, aimed at improving Vietnam’s capabilities to protect its claims in the South China Sea. This past July, China and Vietnam had a maritime standoff when Chinese ships conducted oil exploration in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). U.S. policy may not be as present for high-profile affairs in East Asia as it used to be, but it is very much still active in the region.

With the United States trying to advance competition with China, its relationships in Southeast Asia are of great importance. After all, this region is both a main artery for global trade and a security hotspot. If the United States wants to continue to be a major power in Asia, it needs to show up and listen to ASEAN. 

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