In what many perceived as a snub, seven out of ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided to skip a scheduled meeting with a United States government representative on November 4, sending their foreign ministers to parley in place of heads of government.
The ASEAN leaders, in essence, were showing displeasure with what they perceived as the United States’ lack of engagement – the latest example coming only last weekend, with the United States sending a relatively low-level delegation to the ASEAN and related summits held on the outskirts of the Thai capital Bangkok from October 31-November 4 and on the sideline, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross holding a separate business forum event elsewhere in the city.
The meetings are arguably the high point of the year diplomatically – if not for the wider Asia-Pacific region, then certainly for Southeast Asia. But with US President Donald Trump snubbing the summits for the second year in a row, and neither Mike Pence, the Vice President, not Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, taking his place, the ASEAN leaders could hardly be blamed for delegating their chief diplomats to meet the Americans who did show up.
After all, there were bigger issues to discuss, such as the fate of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a huge trade deal seven years in the making and one that does not involve the United States. The agreement is seen as crucial to promoting free trade in an era when China and the United States are facing off over tariffs and China’s telecommunications giant Huawei – and when protectionism looks to be growing. And although India, the second biggest would-be signatory, withdrew from RCEP, the deal looks set to be sealed next year and will allow China, which has pushed hard for the agreement, to claim that it is now the leading proponent of globalisation ahead of the United States, a potentially crucial point for Southeast Asia, where most economies are trade-dependent.
The view of ASEAN toward the United States has been worsening since Donald Trump’s election win in late 2016. A recent survey of 1,000 Southeast Asian experts, analysts, and business leaders published by the Singaporean ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in January 2019 suggested that 68% of those surveyed showed them doubting the reliability of the United States as a “strategic partner and provider of regional security”.
That President Trump sent the relatively unknown Robert O’Brien – though his position of National Security Advisor is quite important – to this year’s ASEAN get-together, can only be confirmation of those worst fears about American indifference. To make it more jarring, other powers in the region were dispatching their top leaders, with China represented by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe there on behalf of Japan – a key United States ally that is also aiming to counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. President Moon Jae-in represented South Korea, while India’s re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who appeared with Trump at a recent political rally in the United States – was also there, but even the memory of Modi’s bearhug at the event was not enough to persuade Trump to fly across the Pacific.
Trump’s apparent who-cares stance is in contrast to Barack Obama, whose signature foreign policy achievement was arguably the Trans Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trade deal since jettisoned by Trump. Obama began his presidency by announcing a “pivot to Asia” and attended most of the ASEAN summits held during his two terms in office. The only absence came in 2013 when he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the ASEAN and East Asian Summits held in Brunei – and even then only because of a threatened government “shutdown” by Republicans contesting Obama’s proposed legislation. Trump too, however, can cite distraction, not least as he could be facing impeachment over alleged wrong-doing in a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart and as he gears up for what will surely be a stormy re-election bid next year.
Still, Obama could be forgiven because he lavished a lot of attention on Southeast Asia. He visited the region thirteen times during his tenure. And should Trump lose the 2020 Presidential Election, he would become the first US president since George H.W. Bush who did not visit Indonesia during his tenure.
No surprise, then, that Trump’s no-show has fuelled concerns about the United States’ inattentiveness to an increasingly fraught region, where China has, of late, adopted a much more aggressive stance, particularly in the contested South China Sea.
China’s perceived aggression in the sea remains the source of much dispute and consternation in ASEAN, especially in Vietnam and the Philippines. A Chinese oil survey vessel, for instance, stayed within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone for three months despite Vietnam’s protests. And tension between China and the Philippines remains acute, with hundreds of Chinese vessels regularly seen in waters around islands claimed by the Philippines, culminating in the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in April.
Moreover, not only due to its actions in the South China Sea, China is deeply unpopular among the populations of Southeast Asia, even in countries that rely on Chinese investment – actual, such as in Cambodia, and promised, such in the Philippines – due to what they perceive as China’s arrogance and lack of respect towards local populations. And despite the fact that the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is far more accommodating to China’s interests compared to his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, polls show 74% of Filipinos believing that their government should not trust China.
The United States, all the same, has benefitted from most ASEAN countries remaining wary of growing China’s influence in the region – even as they pine for China’s economic investment. The United States is still the most powerful country in the world – the only one with the means to stand up to China and guarantee security in the region, should China become too assertive. So despite the possibility of antagonising China, ASEAN countries remain willing to take part in military drills and exercises with the United States – even in the South China Sea.
Still, it should not be taken for granted that ASEAN member-states will put up indefinitely with American indifference. While that does not mean Southeast Asia will throw its hands up in resignation, accepting Chinese dominance of the region as a fait accompli, there are already attempts by ASEAN to try to defuse tension with China. Most notable is ASEAN countries backing a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, in the hope that they could at least persuade China to agree to some sort of rules, even though this could come across as tacit acceptance of the de facto dominance of China in the South China Sea, including its artificial islands and military bases.
Another attempt to keep ASEAN relevant is so-called “ASEAN centrality,” which stresses cooperation and trust-building as a way to defuse tensions in the region. This, however, must also be seen as a response to the United States-supported concepts of the Quad and Indo-Pacific, the latter described as an attempt at a rules-based and open order aiming to prevent instability and stopping any one country from dominating the maritime domain.
This concept of “ASEAN centrality” essentially means trying to prevent member-states from being detached and swept into in the US-made Indo-Pacific, and thus being potentially dragged into conflict. And this reflects the feeling that while ASEAN member-states value their security relationship with the United States, Washington should not see itself as the only game in town. Either China will expand its influence or ASEAN itself will try to become more independent or forge closer relationships with other countries seen as more dependable and less troublesome, such as India, Japan, and Australia.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a politics and security analyst and lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Cimahi, Bandung.