The 35th ASEAN Summit and its related meetings ended on 5 November 2019 with stronger ASEAN solidarity and centrality. This was in part due to US President Donald Trump’s decision not to partake in the summitry and his high-handed manner in responding to the Southeast Asian diplomatic process. Kavi Chongkittavorn specially for the East Asia Forum.
Before the White House issued an official statement on 30 October announcing that Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Robert O’Brien would be Trump’s ‘special envoy’ to the summits in Bangkok, the Thai ASEAN 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 there had never been such a low-ranking and non-cabinet member assigned to attend the summits. At the summits in Singapore last year, US Vice President Mike Pence replaced Trump at the main summit.
Many were upset that Washington was setting a bad precedent that other nations would follow. One foreign minister urged the Thai Chair to call off the 7th ASEAN–US Summit to send a strong message to Trump. Another minister suggested that ASEAN representatives at the ASEAN–US Summit should be O’Brien’s counterparts. Several ministers were concerned that the White House might even dispatch an even lower-ranking official to future summits if ASEAN remained cowed. Others came to Trump’s defence, citing the domestic troubles facing him and his cabinet back in Washington.
The Thai Chair agreed that the appropriate response to O’Brien’s participation was reforming the ‘troika’ — the trio that would represent ASEAN at the summit with the United States. In the past, the troika consisted of the past, current and incoming ASEAN chairs. This time around, it consisted of the current and incoming ASEAN chairs and the country coordinator for ASEAN–US relations. This was the first time this formula had been used in the ASEAN–US Summit’s history.
This was neither a snub nor an attempt at embarrassment. A senior Thai diplomat referred to the move as ‘a polite ASEAN way’ of responding to Washington’s ‘misguided breach of protocol and diplomatic etiquette’.
At the ASEAN–US Summit, several senior ASEAN officials were reportedly also unhappy that O’Brien had 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. O’Brien then surprised the delegates when he read out Trump’s letter inviting ASEAN leaders to a special summit with the US President in early 2020.
ASEAN leaders did not expect such drastic action from Washington. Trump wanted ASEAN leaders to come see him instead — using a marketing strategy akin to a salesman who failed the first pitch.
Interestingly, former US president Barack Obama laid solid groundwork for a special summit in the United States. At the 2015 ASEAN–US Summit in Malaysia, Obama made the unprecedented but welcome move of personally inviting ASEAN leaders for a ASEAN–US Special Summit that was then held at Sunnylands, California in February 2016.
Due to Washington’s disrespectful behaviour, ASEAN leaders are yet to give Trump’s invitation serious thought. In their view, the United States was the biggest loser as other East Asian leaders were focussed on deepening and broadening mutual cooperation with ASEAN.
ASEAN leaders will have to decide whether the trip to the United States should come before or after the 36th ASEAN Summit in Vietnam that will be held in April next year. Some ASEAN leaders want to hold their own talks so that the bloc can come up with a common position on key ASEAN–US matters. That said, given the ongoing impeachment efforts and the start of election campaigning, it is hard to know if Trump will be attending the ASEAN Summit and its related meetings.
Vietnam’s role as the incoming ASEAN chair gives it the advantage of already being considered Washington’s darling. The United States helped Vietnam become a part of the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2020, the United States and Vietnam will also be celebrating the 25th anniversary of their normalisation of diplomatic ties. Since Trump came to office, he has visited Vietnam twice — first for the APEC summit held in November 2017 and then for his second meeting with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un in February 2019.
ASEAN leaders will also have to agree on the themes to discuss with their US counterparts. Trump failed to directly discuss the Indo-Pacific strategy with ASEAN leaders when he had the chance. And the recently proposed Blue Dot Network is still very vague.
On the ground, the United States has also yet to confirm a US ambassador to ASEAN — a post that has been left vacant for nearly three years like in several other ASEAN capitals. During the Obama years, US ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian was instrumental in organising the first ASEAN–US Special Summit, which propelled ASEAN–US relations to new heights. Obama believed in the potential of the grouping to be a global player with a population of about 655 million people.
ASEAN leaders must also think about the content of the joint statement that will be released after the second ASEAN–US Special Summit. The White House under Obama upgraded the joint statement of the first ASEAN–US Special Summit to a declaration to highlight ASEAN’s position as one of the US’s strategic partners. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration can top the Sunnylands Declaration.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University. A version of this article first appeared here on Bangkok Post.