News Article

Trump snubs ASEAN meeting signalling fading US interest in the region

US envoy seen as sign of disrespoect by ASEAN leaders

For a second straight year, President Donald Trump missed the ASEAN summit, one of the most critical diplomatic meetings in Southeast Asia, ceding geopolitical space to China and signalling the region’s diminishing U.S. involvement.

Bangkok’s Southeast Asian Nations Association Summit ended on Monday. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who took over after John Bolton’s departure in September, represented the U.S.

Trump’s contempt of multilateralism is well known, but his absence was conspicuous. In the face of growing Chinese activity in the region, the U.S. has repeatedly pushed a “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. But it is clear at this point that U.S. politicians place no focus on Asia.

Summit leaders presumably perceived O’Brien’s involvement, who does not hold a cabinet-level position as, “a snub rather than an endorsement of Southeast Asia’s significance to US foreign policy,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Different vision is rendered by the ASEAN-U.S. Summit. Just three ASEAN members visited O’Brien: Thailand’s Summit Chair Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who will chair the next summit, and Laos’s Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, the U.S. officials representative.

They dispatched their foreign ministers to the other seven nations. “This was a protest against’ the O’Brien shock,'” said a diplomatic source from ASEAN.

O’Brien also worked at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok on Monday as Trump’s special envoy. It was the first occasion that a participating nation sent to the summit a lower-ranking delegate than foreign minister. The U.S. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence led the United States.

National security advisors, like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served under presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, have been more influential than the vice president in the past.

Yet O’Brien is already the fourth person under Trump to fill the role, and there is no suggestion that he has a significant impact on Washington’s policymaking.

Within Asia’s post-war policy, the U.S. has a checkered past. It was caught up in the Vietnam War, but by supporting free exchange and competition, it also helped the great economic development of the country. It also provided a stable framework for security.

It also played a role in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a massive free-trade pact that was one of the summit’s main topics.

The RCEP was initially conceived after the Asian currency crisis of 1997 as a regional free-trade bloc. China wanted to include the ASEAN countries themselves, Japan and South Korea, but Japan also pushed Australia, New Zealand and India to counter the influence of Beijing.

No progress has been made until the US has been speeding up talks for its own Pacific-Rim trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China, eager for the US to take the lead in setting regional trade standards, decided to accept the RCEP position of Japan.

But soon after taking office in January 2017, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP. Despite the protectionist stance of the Trump administration— it’s in the middle of tariff wars with China and the European Union — the RCEP will play a vital role in the preservation of free trade.

Countries at the ASEAN Summit again struggled to complete the RCEP talks, but all states except India are planning to move forward with the legal processes required to sign an agreement in 2020. Despite India’s holdout status, their commitment to multilateralism is underlined by the determination of other countries to move forward.

Our commitment provides a sharp contrast to the U.S. “We’ve told the U.S. about the success in the RCEP talks, but they’ve barely shown any concern,” said a Japanese official.

The new U.S. policy to Asia has significantly changed. In the past, the U.S. would obstruct economic integration ideas that did not include themselves, as suggested by Japan during 1997 by the Asian Monetary Fund. That was part of an effort to maintain the region’s influence. U.S. policy now dominates isolationism and disinterest.

Historians may come to see the ASEAN summit of this year as the beginning of the end of the Asian order headed by the United States.

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