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International relations

Trump's ASEAN snub signals US-led Asia order is in decline

Southeast Asian leaders see presidential envoy as sign of disrespect, expert says

U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien at a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the ASEAN summit on Nov. 4 in Thailand. (Pool photo)

BANGKOK -- U.S. President Donald Trump skipped one of Southeast Asia's most important diplomatic gatherings for a second straight year, ceding strategic space to China and signaling fading U.S. interest in the region.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bangkok ended on Monday. The U.S. was represented by National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who took over in September after the departure of John Bolton.

Trump's disdain for multilateralism is well known, but his absence nevertheless stood out. The U.S. has repeatedly pushed a "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy in the face of growing Chinese activity in the region. But at this point it is clear that U.S. policymakers are placing little emphasis on Asia.

Leaders at the summit likely saw the presence of O'Brien, who does not hold a cabinet-level position, "as a snub rather than an affirmation of Southeast Asia's importance to US foreign policy," said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The ASEAN-U.S. Summit made for a strange sight. Only three ASEAN leaders met with O'Brien: Summit Chair Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam, who will lead the next summit, and Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, the liaison for U.S. officials.

The other seven countries sent their foreign ministers. "This was a protest against 'the O'Brien shock,'" an ASEAN diplomatic source said.

O'Brien also acted as Trump's special envoy at the East Asia Summit, which was held on Monday in Bangkok. It was the first time a participating country sent a representative lower ranked than foreign minister to the summit. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence represented the U.S. last year.

In the past there have been national security advisers who were more influential than the vice president, like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served under presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter respectively.

But O'Brien is already the fourth person to fill the role under Trump, and there are no indications that he has significant impact on policymaking in Washington.

The U.S. has a checkered past when it comes to postwar policy in Asia. It got caught up in the Vietnam War but also supported the region's high economic growth by supporting free trade and markets. It also provided a stable security framework.

In addition, it played a role in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a massive free trade pact that was one of the main topics at the summit.

The RCEP was originally conceived of as a regional free-trade bloc after the 1997 Asian currency crisis. China wanted to include the ASEAN countries, itself, Japan and South Korea, but Japan pushed to also bring in Australia, New Zealand and India to counter Beijing's influence.

Little progress was made until the U.S. started to accelerate negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, its own Pacific-Rim trade deal. China, anxious that the U.S. would take the lead in setting regional trade standards, decided to accept Japan's RCEP position.

But Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP soon after taking office in January 2017. Given the Trump administration's protectionist tilt -- it is in the midst of tariff battles with China and the European Union -- the RCEP may play a key role in defending free trade.

Countries at the ASEAN summit again failed to conclude the RCEP negotiations, but all countries except India plan to move ahead with the legal processes necessary to sign a deal in 2020. Despite India's holdout status, the other countries' determination to move forward underscores their commitment to multilateralism.

Their fortitude offers a sharp contrast to the U.S. "We've told the U.S. about the progress in the RCEP negotiations, but they've hardly shown any interest," a Japanese government official said.

The present U.S. approach to Asia has changed significantly. In the past, the U.S. would block ideas for economic integration that did not include itself, like the Asian Monetary Fund proposed by Japan in 1997. That was part an effort to maintain its own influence in the region. Now isolationism and disinterest dominate U.S. policy.

Historians may come to see this year's ASEAN summit as the beginning of the end of the U.S.-led Asian order.

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