2017/67, 7 November 2017
One thing we have come to expect from US President Donald Trump is to expect the unexpected. A case in point is Trump’s last minute change of mind on his participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS) on 14 November 2017. The Trump Administration scored some major brownie points when Vice President Mike Pence announced in April this year that the president will attend the summit. Just as ASEAN prepares to roll out the red carpet to welcome Trump on his first presidential visit to Southeast Asia, the Washington Post broke the news on 24 October that Trump would in fact skip the EAS. The matter came full circle when Trump made the announcement before embarking on his five-country Asia visit that he would attend the EAS after all.
Notwithstanding the fact that Trump’s change of heart was greeted with a collective sigh of relief across Southeast Asia, the turn of events puts into focus the Trump Administration’s management of its Asia policy, or lack thereof. In the first instance, the “flip-flop” suggests a lack of common understanding within the Trump Administration of its relations with Southeast Asia, which adds to the region’s growing sense of uncertainty towards the US. The apparent ease in which Trump changed his mind raises questions about US credibility and its ability to fulfil its commitments. If the word of the Vice President counts for little, should his word or that of other senior US officials be taken seriously? The “EAS debacle” further damages the US’ battered image, which is still reeling from Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and UNESCO.
The apparent casual manner in which Trump cancelled and then reinstated the EAS into his Asia itinerary reflects his Administration’s insensitivity to the importance of Asian multilateralism. It should be self-evident to the Trump Administration that engaging ASEAN and its full and active participation in ASEAN-led processes, including the EAS, helps to maintain and advance US strategic interest in Southeast Asia and the wider East Asia region.
Renewing and reassuring its allies and friends in the region is a welcome respite from the deafening silence of Trump’s muted “Asia policy.” Like his immediate predecessor, Trump should recognise and actively engage ASEAN because doing so is one of the most effective ways to underline and maintain the US’ position as an Asia-Pacific and global power. The US’ US$300 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in the region may stand on less stable grounds if Trump does not understand this logic and fails to put US’ enormous diplomatic and strategic resources to maintaining an open liberal trade and stable security order in the region.
EAS sceptics were cheered on by the possibility that Trump may have initially passed on attending the EAS because of both its “talk shop” reputation as well as ASEAN’s reluctance to give the Dialogue Partners (including the US) a bigger say in how the EAS is run. If this was indeed the reason for Trump’s initial backtracking, it stands to reason that the US would stand a better chance at “restructuring” the EAS to make it more effective by leading the charge from within and not by staying away. More importantly, Trump’s absence would have underlined his disinterest in the EAS process and negated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s presence in a leaders-led strategic forum. US officials would have been “lame ducks” in the November meetings and all subsequent meetings. Optically and operationally, Trump’s reversal helped to protect US’ diplomatic standing within the multilateral circles.
Good sense eventually prevailed, and Trump made the right call in extending his Asian tour to attend the EAS. The region will scrutinise and study each handshake and every word he makes in search for clues of his Administration’s elusive Asia policy. Trump will also find that the US has a large reservoir of goodwill and trust – a result of decades of laborious groundwork on the American and Asian side. Trump may have stumbled along the path to the EAS, but fortunately for him and the US, he would have ample opportunities to strike the right posture in a week’s time when he would have first-hand experience of ASEAN-style summitry.
Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
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