The US diplomatic debacle at the ASEAN Summits and its ‘Hail Mary’ to salvage relations

US President Donald Trump. Photo:Gage Skidmore

The Trump administration has eroded confidence in the US’s economic and foreign policy commitments. But its attempts to salvage relations risk exacerbating the situation.

By Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

The behaviour of the US representatives before and at the 35th ASEAN summit illustrated that its political, economic and cultural influence on the preferences of Southeast Asian countries has declined. U.S. and ASEAN relations have become increasingly discordant. Now the US has invited ASEAN leaders to meet with US President Donald Trump in the U.S. in early 2020.  Given the circumstances, this seems like a last-ditch effort – a ‘Hail Mary’, in American football parlance, to save the game – in this case, to recover Southeast Asian confidence.  But this is probably asking – and expecting– too much too late in the ‘game’.

President Trump has eroded international trust in the US government

 US soft power in the region has been declining for some time. But it accelerated when the new administration of US President Donald Trump withdrew from the US proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic pact. 

At the time, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked in reference to the US withdrawal: “How can anyone believe in you anymore?” Worse, Trump seemed to be willing to make a deal with China to the detriment of the security of Southeast Asia—‘if China helped restrain North Korea, the US would lessen pressure on China in the South China Sea’.   

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Photo: Ace Kindredzen

Trump’s “America First” policy has economically punished some ASEAN countries and thus alienated some potential supporters in the region.  Indeed, to many ASEAN nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra sounds like ‘you are on your own.’ 

The US’s behaviour at the ASEAN Summit only reinforced its retreat from the region

In the run-up to the ASEAN summits in Bangkok, there were hopes in some quarters that the US would somehow salvage some of its soft power or at least not undermine it further.

But even before the summits began, the US shot itself in the foot. While Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended, Trump did not.  The American delegation was headed by a non-Cabinet member, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. 

US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross during a visit to Thailand in 2017.
Photo: US Embassy Bangkok

This choice of a comparatively lower level of representation embarrassed the Thai hosts, a US regional ally.  It also confirmed some ASEAN leaders’ suspicions that despite US rhetoric to the contrary, their countries and the region as a whole do not figure prominently in US strategic thinking.

The US maintains that it is in the best position to confront Chinese aggression in the region

But the US continues to ignore this reality. In establishing its position for the summits, the US urged the ASEAN states and others to join it in confronting China over its actions in the South China Sea. Speaking in Singapore on the eve of the summits, David Stilwell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific made a thinly veiled criticism of China, asserting “without security, you can’t have trade.” 

“There has to be a security element.  [And] nobody is better suited to it than the US, mostly because we include others in that security apparatus in terms of allies and partner.”

The US delegation to the summits reportedly circulated a ‘discussion’ paper that called on ASEAN nations to “protest [against] China’s expansive and unlawful maritime claims.”  At the ASEAN-US summit itself, O’Brien blasted China for “intimidation” in the South China Sea and exercising a form of “imperialism”.

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis ploughs through the South China Sea.
Photo: US Navy

But US entreaties for ASEAN to stand up to China on this issue fell on deaf ears.  Vietnam was the only ASEAN country that pushed ASEAN to take a strong stand against China and it did not get much support. 

The US and its ASEAN allies exchanged barbs

That diplomatic failure was bad enough. But then came the mutual recriminations.  The US urged all Southeast Asian national leaders to attend an ancillary meeting with O’Brien where he read a letter from President Trump inviting them to a “special summit” in the U.S. early next year.

Reflecting ASEAN’s pique at the lower level representation seven of the leaders declined to attend O’Brien’s meeting, sending their foreign ministers instead.  The only top leaders attending were Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as host, the Vietnamese prime minister as host of next year’s summit and the leader of Laos, the current coordinator of ASEAN-US relations.

Strictly speaking, this was appropriate protocol. But it was a stinging public rebuke nevertheless. An unidentified American diplomat said: “We are extremely concerned by the apparent decision.”

“A full or partial boycott by ASEAN leaders will be seen as an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America and this will be very damaging to the substance of the ASEAN-US relations.”

An ASEAN representative retorted that Trump’s no-show was undermining trust in the US as a reliable security partner.  “ASEAN as a whole was unhappy with US President Donald Trump who decided to skip the meeting… They were of the view that Trump should at least send a representative who is in the Cabinet.” 

Trump’s attempts to channel Obama’s ASEAN policy risks exacerbating the situation

Now it appears that the Trump administration is taking a page from the Obama administration playbook by inviting the ASEAN leaders to the U.S.  In February 2016, then-President Barack Obama convened the ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands to make a new start in the US-ASEAN relationship.  Together they produced the Sunnylands Principles.

The principles broke new ground. The US publicly agreed to some lofty ASEAN goals like the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN-led mechanisms for the evolving regional security architecture—and above all ASEAN ‘centrality’. The summit and the ‘principles’ were also supposed to demonstrate US interest in the region and its reluctance to yield influence to China. 

However, these ‘commitments’ have clearly fallen by the wayside in the Trump administration. 

The U.S. has discovered the hard way that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are shallower and more ephemeral than it thought. Now it hopes to stem or even just keep pace with China’s growing influence by resorting to a diplomatic ‘Hail Mary’. 

But the US invitation to the leaders denigrates ASEAN’s coveted centrality in international affairs in the region. This is a main pillar of ASEAN and without it, ASEAN itself stands to lose credibility in and outside the region.  Such a meeting would be seen as US-centric, not ASEAN-centric. Instead of Trump going to them, the leaders have been summoned to come to him. 

Although the US accuses China of “imperialistic’ behaviour, under the circumstances, the US gesture smacks of an imperialistic attitude.

Given the U.S. track record and China’s growing clout, this ’Hail Mary’ is unlikely to be successful. Worse, it may be interpreted as a diplomatic punch to the political gut of ASEAN.

If the US is serious about rebuilding its respect and trust in the region, it has to do so step by step in a manner that demonstrates a genuine concern for the region’s preferred future. It will need to show a willingness to help ASEAN achieve its future on its terms – not as part of a self-serving effort to court relations with ASEAN nations to contain China.

Perhaps US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s upcoming trip to the region to attend the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus can be used to begin to repair the relationship. But his spokesperson’s announcement that he will “discuss common challenges such as the militarization of the South China Sea” does not augur well for such a reboot.