The postponed US-ASEAN summit: How they covered it

US-ASEANPhoto: White House

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak continues to dominate global and regional headlines. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pushed back plans to visit his Japanese counterpart, there was a sense of inevitability about the postponement of the planned US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas, even before the city reported its first case. Here is a summary of how the region’s press outlets covered a story that went from what might, to what might have been.

The summit would have been an opportunity for the US to rebuild bridges

The setback came with relations between the US and Southeast Asia at a low ebb. US President Donald Trump has not attended the last two ASEAN summits and sent his security advisor, Robert O’Brien, to last year’s event in Bangkok.

This year’s US-ASEAN summit was scheduled for mid-March and all 10 ASEAN heads of state had been invited, as The Bangkok Post reported. Their report claimed five (those from Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) were expected to attend.

The Jakarta Post confirmed that Indonesian President Joko Widodo was ready to head to Las Vegas, where he was also set for one-on-one talks with Trump.

Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen–despite his country’s increasing engagement with China–appeared optimistic about the summit. “I wanted to tell these analysts to understand why the US is strengthening ASEAN relations, which is their real goal,” he said.

What was Trump trying to achieve?

Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump.
Photo: Gage Skidmore

It is not clear what Trump wanted to achieve had the summit gone ahead. Although there was speculation that the South China Sea issue was on the agenda, writing in The Bangkok Post, Kavi Chongkittavorn provided a detailed analysis of how the summit might have played out.

He suggested Trump was going to spend only a few hours with the leaders en bloc. With one eye on his upcoming re-election bid, Chongkittavorn poses the question that he might have been planning on playing a ‘divide and reward’ game with ASEAN members, focusing heavily instead on bilateral meetings.

Despite Trump’s seeming reluctance to treat ASEAN as a group, there were plans, Chongkittavorn wrote, for a simultaneous Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) summit intending to increase US assistance towards development projects. It could have been (and may well be) a step in the right direction for both parties.

But would it have been too little, too late? “Now, 236 days before his presidency expires, he has still not had any meaningful meeting with the ASEAN 10. Yet he wants to make a difference in ASEAN under his watch,” he wrote. He claims US officials were “relieved” about the postponement as they felt the summit would produce few, if any, “deliverable milestones”.

What should the US do next?

Writing in The Diplomat, Charles Dunst and Hunter Marston claimed that even though the summit won’t take place in March, and may not go ahead at all, the US still has a prominent role to play in Southeast Asia in 2020, as China increases its hegemony in the region.

“The Trump administration would be wise to adopt a strategy that appeals to Southeast Asian partners wary of alienating Beijing,” they advised. “First, Washington should avoid creating rival blocs in Southeast Asia by forcing regional partners to support the Trump administration’s attempts to contain China. If the administration wants regional partners to lean toward Washington and support its FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) vision, it must appeal to them on their own terms rather than prodding them to line up in an anti-China coalition.”

They also urged the US to step up their diplomacy and to avoid trying to outdo China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with its own projects in the region.

Just by inviting ASEAN leaders and planning on attending, Trump has already shown more willingness to engage with ASEAN than he has done in the last two years. It will take more time to undo some of the damage he has done, but it is in both parties’ interest to rebuild bridges.

Once the coronavirus threat has cleared, the speed at which the summit is rescheduled might offer a clue to how seriously the Trump administration is prepared to take its relationship with the region. More pertinently, perhaps, how readily ASEAN’s leaders again commit to attending might be a better indicator of which direction the partnership is heading.