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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.