Donald Trump

Southeast Asia finally gets Trump’s attention, with three-summit tour scheduled for November

Trump plans to attend Asean, Apec and East Asia summits in Philippines and Vietnam, yet he will struggle to match the attention lavished upon the region by Obama

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 11:38pm

Southeast Asia, a focus of past US presidents, had been overlooked thus far by the Trump administration, but Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia heralded a sign of change and he announced the president would follow him to the region later this year.

Anxious Southeast Asian governments are looking for America’s commitment to counter China’s economic and military clout. Vietnam’s foreign minister is in Washington this week, and the top diplomats of the region’s 10-nation bloc are expected to arrive en masse in early May, amid concerns their interests were being crowded out as President Donald Trump prioritises Mideast counterterrorism, traditional alliances in Europe and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Pence’s stop in Jakarta on a 10-day swing through the Asia-Pacific, meeting with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, sends a message that Trump’s interests in Asia extend beyond North Korea and the massive US trade imbalance with China. It is the first visit to Southeast Asia by a top administration official, and Pence announced Thursday that Trump will attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, in the Philippines in November. He will also attend the East Asia Summit there, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vietnam the same month.

The visits will not be Trump’s first overseas as president. He is slated to attend the Nato and G7 summits in Belgium and Italy, respectively, in May.

Washington is “taking steps to strengthen our partnership with Asean and deepen our friendship,” Pence said, resolving to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation in combating terrorism and in the disputed South China Sea.

This year marks Asean’s 50th anniversary. November’s gathering is being held in the Philippines, setting the stage for an encounter between two unconventional leaders: Trump and the host, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president who is sometimes likened to the American leader because of his outspokenness and unashamed populism. Duterte’s government welcomed Pence’s announcement that Trump would attend.

US-Philippine relations are strained over Duterte’s war on drugs, and his brash efforts to forge closer ties with China. President Barack Obama scrapped a planned meeting last fall after Duterte cursed him. Before that, Obama engaged Southeast Asia more than any US president since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and made Asean summits a virtual fixture on his diplomatic calendar.

The region very much wants to know where the United States is going to stand on the South China Sea
Amy Searight, former US defence official

Among Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments: Promoting democratic reform in Myanmar, on communist China’s doorstep. He stood up, albeit unsuccessfully, against Beijing’s construction of artificial islands that can give it a strong military foothold in the South China Sea. He paved the way for a bigger US military presence in the Philippines, where American bases were shuttered 25 years ago.

Obama also understood the importance of showing up. He made nine trips to Southeast Asia, became the first sitting US president to visit former adversaries Myanmar and Laos, and was first to travel to Malaysia in more than four decades.

Trump got off on the wrong foot.

His “America First” rhetoric and abrupt withdrawal from Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact raised fears of US protectionism hurting the region’s 600 million people, who engage in US$225 billion in trade with the US each year. Trump’s relationship with Beijing remains unclear and his unorthodox foreign policy has begged the question as to whether he could ease US demands on the South China Sea to win Chinese co-operation on North Korea.

“The region very much wants to know where the United States is going to stand on the South China Sea, and more broadly what its approach to China is going to be,” said Amy Searight, a former top US defence official for the region.

Senior State Department official Patrick Murphy told reporters Thursday that the US would continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Those US Navy manoeuvres through disputed waters were conducted periodically under Obama but have not occurred since Trump took office three months ago.

Still, the future of economic ties is probably the region’s top concern. China is the main trading partner for most of Southeast Asia, although the US remains a key source of foreign investment. The TPP’s demise leaves an alternative pact as the main avenue for boosting trade among the fast-growing economies. China is a part of that negotiation, while the US isn’t.

Trump’s decision to leave TPP “creates a vacuum that China is happy to try to fill,” Searight said.