Amid Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and an ongoing trade war between the United States and China, Trump’s decision not to attend the Asean Summit — and this weekend’s Apec forum in Papua New Guinea — has been interpreted as a more hands-off approach to the region compared to his predecessor Barack Obama.
But analysts say such criticism of Trump’s engagement — or perceived lack thereof — may be out of proportion to the reality on the ground.
“The American business and commerce presence in South-East Asia has never been stronger,” says David Shambaugh, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The US remains “deeply engaged in the [region’s] security and military domains” and “maintains a robust series of public diplomacy programmes,” he added.
“I think the US reputation will, in fact, not be terribly damaged” by Trump missing the Asean and Apec meetings, Shambaugh said.
“But it does feed into the narrative about the US being an absentee power,” he added.
Others say Trump’s tough stances on China may actually resonate with Asean countries — even if the leaders of those countries do not say so publicly.
“While Asian governments, businesses and consumers might well share US concerns about Chinese behaviour only the Trump administration [has] been willing to take those concerns to the world stage,” said Curtis S Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and now the inaugural Asia fellow of the Milken Institute, a non-partisan economic think tank.
Chin cited concerns such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, restricted access to Chinese markets, lack of respect for international rules and norms, and efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters and skies.
“With or without Trump in Asia [this week], the United States clearly remains an Indo-Pacific power,” Chin said.
“Even more critical than participation in summit pageantry will be continued US diplomatic, political and economic engagement if the call for a free and open Indo-Pacific region is to be heeded,” he added.
Meanwhile, China is ambitiously seeking to expand its influence among its south-eastern neighbours.
Trade volume between China and Asean countries reached $442bn in 2017.
As China’s Belt and Road Initiative moves ahead with construction of high-speed railways linking Kunming, the capital of its southern province of Yunnan, with mainland South-East Asia, the country’s long-term vision of an interlinked Asia is fast becoming reality.
Chinese investment in Asean countries is expected to nearly triple between 2018 and 2035, rising from $181bn this year to $500bn in 2035. The US-China trade war will likely accelerate this process.
The tensions will likely incentivise firms in China whose exports are affected by higher tariffs to relocate to the region.
Asean is forecast to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the opening ceremony for the Asean Summit.
US Vice President Mike Pence has described the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region as “steadfast and enduring.”
“US trade in the region is worth more than $1.8tn annually,” Pence said, “and our total regional investment in the Indo-Pacific is nearly $1tn.”
That investment, Pence says, is “more than China, Japan and South Korea’s investment combined.”