2018/61, 14 May 2018
If things go to plan, President Trump will be in Singapore on 12 June for the historic first US-North Korea Summit, reaffirming Singapore as East Asia’s premiere diplomatic hub. Yet, for President Trump to fulfil his 2018 ASEAN commitments – attending the 6th annual ASEAN-U.S. Summit and the East Asia Summit, he would have to agree to return to Singapore a mere five months later. In his first year in office, President Trump only made it to the 5th ASEAN-U.S. summit in Manila, leaving to go home before the delayed East Asia Summit.
Four differences suggest that it may be harder to get President Trump to fulfil his ASEAN commitments this year than last:
1) President Trump overseas travel schedule for 2018 appears much lighter than in his first year in office;
2) US government officials have routinely expressed the great difficulty of committing to two presidential trips to East Asia in one year. Singapore, after all, is over 15,000 kilometres away from Washington DC. This presidential scheduling constraint is one of the reasons that the second ASEAN Summit and the APEC Leaders meetings, when hosted by an East Asian state, are held back-to-back;
3) The APEC Leaders Meeting, for the first time, is scheduled to be held in Port Moresby Papua New Guinea. This will not be as an attractive location for President Trump to visit as Danang was when Vietnam hosted APEC last year;
4) The ASEAN-U.S. Summit and the East Asia Summit are scheduled to be held only days after the U.S. mid-term elections. These elections promise to be a referendum on the Trump presidency. If the Democrats regain a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate, or both, this would deepen President Trump’s domestic political problems and make a trip to the other side of the globe in the immediate aftermath of the mid-term elections less politically tenable. The G-20 Summit, that has many of the same leaders as APEC and the East Asia Summit, will be held much closer to the US in Buenos Aries, Argentina at the end of November.
President Trump’s first visit to Singapore will be to address the most pressing security problem in Northeast Asia. It would be best for the U.S. position in Southeast Asia if he is a repeat visitor to Singapore this year.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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