“Southeast Asian Engagement with the Trump Administration” by Malcolm Cook

2019/95, 19 November 2019

President Trump’s absences from the East Asia Summit in Singapore last year and in Bangkok two weeks ago have been criticized as a sign of American disengagement from Southeast Asia and ASEAN. Similar criticisms were made of President Obama’s absence from the East Asia Summit in 2013. Secretary of State Kerry led the US delegation that year. Likewise for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s absences from the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005 and 2007. Things were made much worse this year by President Trump’s incorrect decision to not come to Bangkok nor send Vice President Mike Pence, as in 2018, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  

This measure of American engagement sets a uniquely high bar that is not replicated by any other region or regional institution. Every year, the president is expected to fly around the world (and further than any other leader) to a Southeast Asian locale to participate as a dialogue partner in meetings where the agenda is set by ASEAN and that the US can never host. The US as a full member can and has hosted the G-7, the G-20, NATO, APEC, the Arctic Council, and the Organization of American States.

What happens when one applies this same measure of engagement in reverse ( count the number Southeast Asian leaders and foreign ministers that have met their American counterparts in the USA)?

According to State Department press releases, over the last two years, Southeast Asia’s engagement with the US on this measure has been less than that of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and Oceania respectively, and much less than Northeast Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East respectively. These public records indicate that over the last twenty-four months there have been only two meetings between the US Secretary of State and a Southeast Asian counterpart in the USA; with the Singapore foreign minister on 16 May 2019, and with the Vietnam foreign minister on 22 May 2019. 
According to White House media notifications, over this same period only Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore has met with President Trump in the USA on 23 September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Since President Trump took office in January 2017, he has had only five meetings with Southeast Asian leaders in the USA; twice with Prime Minister Lee of Singapore, and, in 2017 once with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha of Thailand, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam respectively.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.