Can errant Trump save Asean-US ties?

Can errant Trump save Asean-US ties?

The 35th Asean Summit and its related meetings ended last week with stronger Asean solidarity and centrality, thanks to President Donald Trump's absence and high-handed manner in responding to the 52-year Southeast Asian diplomatic process.

Before the White House issued an official statement on Oct 30 that Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Robert O'Brien, would be Mr Trump's "special envoy" to the summits in Bangkok, the Thai chair had to do some urgent diplomatic footwork after news broke that neither Vice President Mike Pence nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would attend.

Bangkok immediately informed the White House that in the five decades plus of their diplomatic history, there had never been such a low-ranking and non-cabinet member assigned to attend the summits. A recommendation was made to have a video message from Mr Trump to be played for Asean leaders instead, but the White House did not take up the idea.

However, in a letter dated Nov 1, Mr Trump decided to upgrade and reassign Mr O'Brien as a "special envoy" and ended up with an invitation for Asean leaders to come the US. In Singapore last year, Mr Pence replaced Mr Trump at the main summit.

At the working dinner for Asean foreign ministers on the same day, many were upset as the US was setting a bad precedent for others nations to follow. One outspoken foreign minister urged the Thai chair to call off the 7th Asean-US Summit immediately to send a strong message to Mr Trump -- otherwise, the minister said, the US will continue to belittle Asean.

Another minister suggested instead that the Asean senior officials should be Mr O'Brien's counterparts. Indeed, several ministers were concerned that in the future, the White House might even dispatch an even lower-ranking officials to the summits if Asean remained cowed.

However, some others had a different view, citing the current domestic troubles facing Mr Trump and his cabinet back in the US.

Subsequently, the Thai chair agreed that the appropriate response to Mr O'Brien's participation is reforming the "troika" -- the trio that would represent Asean at the summit with the US. In the past, the troika consisted of the past, current, and incoming chairs. Other Asean countries were represented by their foreign ministers at the summit.

This time around, it consisted of the chair, the incoming chair and the coordinating country -- Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. This was the first time this formula was used in the Asean-US Summit's history.

As such, it was neither a "snub" nor an "embarrassment", as widely reported by Western wire services. A Thai senior diplomat simply called the move "a polite Asean way" of responding to the US's "misguided breach of protocol and diplomatic etiquette".

In private, several senior officials from Asean said they were unhappy that Mr O'Brien proposed the Blue Dot Network -- a new proposal from the Trump administration designed to compete with China's Belt and Road Initiative -- at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, right before his meeting with Asean leaders.

Next, came the surprise. At the Asean-US summit, Mr O'Brien read out Mr Trump's letter, inviting Asean leaders to a special summit with the US president in the first quarter of 2020.

The invitation came as a surprise to Asean leaders, who did not expect such a drastic action from the leader who had refused to attend their meeting. Mr Trump wanted Asean leaders to come to see him instead. This is akin to a marketing strategy of a salesman who failed the first sales pitch.

Interestingly, Mr Trump's much-hated predecessor, Barack Obama, laid a solid groundwork for a special summit with the US. At the 2015 Asean-US summit in Malaysia, Mr Obama made the unprecedented but welcomed move of personally inviting Asean leaders for a special summit at Sunnylands, California, in February 2016.

All Asean leaders agreed to attend, much to the chagrin of their other dialogue partners. The dates and details of the special summit were quickly agreed, due to the good rapport between Mr Obama and his Asean counterparts. It was to be held in the same year that both China and Russia were scheduling their own summits with the Asean leaders -- but it took them almost a year to fix the dates and schedules. So in February 2016, Mr Obama stole the thunder from the other two summits.

At this juncture, Mr Trump's invitation has not yet been given serious thought by Asean leaders, mainly due to the US's disrespectful behaviour. In their view, the US was the biggest loser as other East Asian leaders were friendly and focused on deepening and broadening mutual cooperation with Asean.

Therefore, it is incumbent on both the next chair, Vietnam, and the coordinating country, Laos, to work together in the next month or two to ensure that the second special Asean-US summit in the US will be a success and attended by all Asean leaders. It is a tall order, given the current situation in the US and as well as across Southeast Asia.

First of all, Asean leaders have to decide whether the US trip should come prior or after the 36th Asean Summit in Vietnam, which will be held in April next year. Some Asean leaders have expressed their desire to hold their own talks so the bloc could come up with a common position on key Asean-US related matters, so Vietnam will need to get everyone on board and agree on a date.

Vietnam has the advantage because the new chair of Asean is already considered as Washington's new darling. The US helped Vietnam to become a part of the now defunct Trans Pacific Partnership (which has morphed into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership after the US decided to opt out), and next year, the US and Vietnam will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties between both states.

Since Mr Trump came to office, he has visited Vietnam twice -- first for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit held in November 2017, and then for his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February 2019.

That said, given the ongoing impeachment efforts and the start of the election campaigning, it is hard to know for sure if Mr Trump will be attending the Asean Summit and its related meetings.

Second, Asean leaders will have to agree first on the points and themes to be discussed with their US counterpart. To date, Mr Trump has yet to pitch any proposals pertaining to the region -- except the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, which he failed to discuss directly with Asean leaders when he had the chance. The Blue Dot network, proposed just last week, is still very vague.

On the ground, Mr Trump has yet to name an ambassador to Asean -- a post that has been left vacant for nearly three years. Several other Asean capitals are also suffering from the same fate.

During the Obama years, the previous US ambassador to Asean, Nina Hachigian, was a key player who worked out schedules and the substance of the first special Asean-US special summit, which was translated into a 17-point joint statement that propelled Asean-US relations to new heights. Mr Obama's deep understanding of Southeast Asian history and culture made him a popular leader, respected by both Asean leaders and youth.

Mr Obama was serious about Asean because he believed the grouping has the potential to be a global player with a population of about 655 million people. In the next few years, Asean will become one of the top five economic performers in the world. To the US under Mr Obama, Asean really mattered.

Last but not least Asean leaders should first think about the content of the joint statement which will be released after the second Asean-US summit. The White House under Mr Obama upgraded the joint statement to a declaration to highlight Asean's position as one of the US's strategic partners.

My question to Mr Trump and his gung-ho White House aides is: Can the US top the Sunnylands Declaration?

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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