Singapore: The Trump administration in recent years has stepped up efforts to contain China’s rise, warning Asia’s leaders against taking its cash and using its equipment for 5G networks. But when it comes to the region’s biggest summit, the U.S. is happy to let Beijing take center stage.
President Donald Trump plans to skip the 18-nation East Asia Summit for the third straight year, and this time he’s not even sending Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to replace him. Instead the U.S. will have its lowest level representation at the meeting since Barack Obama formally joined the group in 2011, with new national security adviser Robert O’Brien leading the delegation to Bangkok.
“We accommodated China’s rise, in the hope that they would become more free. In response, the CCP took advantage of our goodwill,” Pomepo tweeted late Wednesday, referencing China’s ruling Communist Party. “Now, @realDonaldTrump is facing the reality of CCP hostility to the U.S. and our values. We must engage China as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
China, by contrast, will send Premier Li Keqiang — President Xi Jinping’s No. 2 — as it does every year. And while the summits often achieve little in terms of substantive outcomes, they remain one of the few places where leaders can openly discuss thorny issues ranging from trade to terrorism to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
We accommodated China’s rise, in the hope that they would become more free. In response, the CCP took advantage of our goodwill. Now, @realDonaldTrump is facing the reality of CCP hostility to the U.S. and our values. We must engage China as it is, not as we wish it to be. pic.twitter.com/MSGxlBex51
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) October 31, 2019
“In a region where just showing up has huge symbolism, the absence of Trump and Pence will no doubt raise renewed questions about how important Southeast Asia and Asia generally are in the pecking order of U.S. priorities,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has written about the region for decades.
“For the top echelons of the U.S. foreign policy establishment not to show up would appear to hand China another opportunity to show the region that the U.S. is distracted and not terribly interested in the region,” Hiebert said.
Trump had planned to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile, which includes many of the same nations, before it was canceled this week. The U.S. is now looking for a new location for Trump to meet Xi and sign a “Phase One” trade deal that could prevent further escalation in a trade war that has damaged the global economy.
Among the 40 agreements that will be signed in Bangkok, the biggest one won’t include America. Sixteen countries — China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations — are close to a breakthrough on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal that will reduce tariffs in an area representing about a third of the world’s economy.
While contentious issues remain and the terms aren’t yet known, RCEP would at least in part fill a trade gap left by the U.S. after Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. Southeast Asia, which collectively has the world’s fifth largest economy, has struggled to wade through the economic fallout of enduring trade tensions between the U.S. and China.
“It will be viewed as a significant gain for China as it even more firmly embeds China in the Asean economic framework,” said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London who writes about Asian defense issues. “The U.S. will be in danger of becoming marginal economically,” he said, adding that Asean would try to balance both major powers.
Greenfield foreign direct investment from China to developing Asia grew to to $54.9 billion in 2018, an increase of 198% from the year before, according to data published earlier this year by the Asian Development Bank. Foreign investment in similar projects from the U.S. to those 44 countries by contrast rose, by 71% in 2018, to reach $24.6 billion.
Xi has used the private sector in conjunction with massive loans and state infrastructure projects to garner greater influence in the region over the last decade, prompting the U.S. to warn smaller countries against becoming indebted to Beijing. David Stilwell, the top American diplomat for East Asia who will also attend the Bangkok meetings with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, said Thursday the U.S. would keep standing up to China.
“This is your turf, this is your place,” he said in a stop in Malaysia, referring to efforts to resist China. “Vietnam has done a good job of pushing back. I would think that Asean centrality could join in with Vietnam to resist actions that are destabilizing and are affecting the security realm, which will very soon reflect an economic realm.”
Pompeo, meanwhile, lashed into China in a major speech in Washington this week.
“Today, we’re finally realizing the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party is truly hostile to the United States and our values, and its worse deeds and words and how they impact us,” Pompeo said.
One major area of concern surrounds China’s territorial claims to large swathes of the South China Sea, where tensions with coastal Southeast Asian nations are on the rise. With the largest navy in the world, China has in recent months used its maritime superiority to assert greater control in the disputed waters. The U.S. Navy has increased “freedom of navigation” operations to challenge China’s claims.
This week’s summit is likely to see more confrontation between the U.S. and China, according to Zhu Feng, executive dean of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University.
“The core issue is the Trump administration didn’t attach much importance to Asean,” he said, due to domestic issues including an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Meanwhile, China’s most important task when facing Asean countries will be to “ease the growing concern and anxiety among them against the backdrop of increasing competition between China and the U.S.”
While the Trump administration has proven itself to be “distracted and erratic,” the U.S. is still critical to keeping Chinese ambitions in check, according to Ian Hall, professor of international relations at the Brisbane-based Griffith Asia Institute who researches geopolitics in Asia.
“It is a measure of just how concerned the region remains about Xi’s increasingly assertive and internally repressive China that regional partners and allies are not more critical of the U.S. given how poorly the Trump administration has managed regional strategy,” he said.