Commentary: Trump skips ASEAN-related summits again. It’s déjà vu for Asia

Commentary: Trump skips ASEAN-related summits again. It’s déjà vu for Asia

The downgrade of US representation also does not help the standing of the East Asian Summit, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Hoang Thi Ha.

asean us summit
US President Donald Trump and ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN-US 40th Anniversary commemorative Summit. (Photo: AFP/POOL/MANAN VATSYAYANA)

SINGAPORE: The news that US President Donald Trump would skip the upcoming ASEAN-US Summit and East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bangkok, to be represented by his Assistant for National Security Affairs Robert C O’Brien and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, has disappointed many but surprised few.

For those who take a long view of the US’ decades-long engagement with the grouping, it is déjà vu given the uneven and occasionally unpredictable track record of the US president and his top diplomat’s attendance at ASEAN gatherings.

THE US’ POOR TRACK RECORD

In the book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng recounted that Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, the two Secretaries of State under the Clinton Administration, skipped their ASEAN meetings or left early.

Those were the days when the Secretary of State was the highest-level representative of the US government to be expected at an ASEAN engagement.

READ: Commentary: The rebirth of the ASEAN miracle growth model

Their successor under the George W Bush Administration, Condoleeza Rice, skipped it twice in 2005 and 2007.

The ASEAN-US Summit, which requires annual attendance of the US president, was institutionalised only recently under the Obama Administration.

POTUS Obama ASEAN logo
Former US President Barack Obama speaks at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 21, 2015. (Photo: AFP)

HARDER TO PERSUADE TRUMP TO ATTEND

For President Trump, the work to persuade him to fly almost a day across half the globe to attend ASEAN-related summits has been understandably much harder, and with limited success thus far, given his idiosyncrasies.

He is an unconventional US president in all respects of the word – one who has unapologetically lambasted multilateralism since his first day in office.

On top of that, a gruelling impeachment process is entering a critical moment as ASEAN leaders and their Dialogue Partner counterparts gather in Bangkok.

READ: Commentary: Trump's latest foreign policy moves undermine US allies' confidence

READ: Commentary: US House didn't need to pass impeachment process but did. Here's why

SOUTHEAST ASIA TAKES A BACK SEAT

The downgrade of representation of the US delegation this year drives home the fact that when it comes to the attention and time of the US president, ASEAN, as a representation of multilateralism, and Southeast Asia, as a region, traditionally take a back seat to more pressing domestic preoccupations or external priorities.

This has been a fact all along, but it is reasserting itself very starkly under the Trump Administration, partly because of the high bar set by Obama. 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence poses for a group photo with ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN-US Summit in
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence poses for a group photo with ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN-US Summit in Singapore November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

It is indeed a new low, given the downward track record of Trump leaving the EAS before the meeting ended in 2017, then delegating the mission to Vice President Mike Pence in 2018, and to lower-level officials this year.

Trump’s no-show is even more disappointing for those who look forward to his presence in the regional summits as a testimony to Washington’s professed support for ASEAN centrality in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

READ: Commentary: ASEAN has an instrumental role in US-China power play

It is a missed opportunity for the US leader to build chemistry and bond with other regional leaders, to get his message across with the greatest impact and attention, and to boost the visibility of US presence which has been found wanting in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN MUST IMPROVE ITS PERFORMANCE

On the part of ASEAN, the downgrade of US representation does not help the standing of the EAS as a premier ASEAN-centric forum for leaders, at a time when the grouping attaches great importance to this forum in its own outlook on the Indo-Pacific adopted in June this year.

Trump’s no-show also puts a further dent in the reliability of American engagement in the region.

READ: Commentary: US policy in Asia heads from bad to worse

To use the words of Bilahari Kausikan, this is another reminder for ASEAN that US presence in the region is not a geographical fact but “the consequence of a geopolitical calculation” which can wax and wane, and even change course.

ASEAN must therefore either acclimatise itself to this on-again, off-again pattern of US presidents’ summit engagement, or step up its efforts to improve the performance, and thus the attraction, of its own ASEAN-led mechanisms. 

Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher (Political & Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/el(ms)(sl)

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