PHNOM PENH – Perhaps trying to pick up the pieces after President Donald Trump skipped an October 31-November 4 series of summit meetings organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional organisation, the United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the last week exchanging bromides and handshakes in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The trip’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] theater is DOD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”
A week later, in Hanoi, Esper announced that the United States would give its old Cold War-era adversary Vietnam a second coast guard cutter to supplement the first such allocation two years – and provide a boost to Vietnam’s naval patrols in the disputed South China Sea, where tensions have surged between Hanoi and Beijing in recent months.
Announcing the move in a speech at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Esper took aim at a “bullying” China, which he accused of “unilateral efforts to assert illegal maritime claims” in the sea, most of which China asserts ownership of. Earlier in the week, Esper told ASEAN defense ministers that the United States doubted China’s intentions over a long-awaited “Code of Conduct” for the sea, through which an estimated $3-5 billion worth of trade passes each year and under which lies potentially lucrative hydrocarbons.
Facing impeachment and heading into a re-election campaign ahead of voting in just under a year’s time, it was hardly a surprise that Trump skipped the annual ASEAN and East Asian Summits for the second year running. However the president’s absence was compounded by neither Vice President Mike Pence nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making the journey to Bangkok, where the United States was represented by Robert O’Brien, Trump’s National Security Adviser, and by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who hosted a business event on the sidelines of the main summit events. ASEAN countries showed their displeasure with only three heads of government showing up for the bloc’s meeting with O’Brien.
Whether or not Esper’s tour of the region repaired the damage or not, it showed that, when it comes to Asia policymaking at least, that Trump continues to favour the Pentagon’s caps and uniforms over the State Department’s dickybow-clad career diplomats.
“Nowadays the United States has largely anchored its connection to the region as a military power,” said Elizabeth Becker, an author and journalist who has covered Asia since the 1970’s,
The United States has flagged China as its greatest potential adversary in national security blueprints published in recent years, a judgment that comes as Beijing increasingly asserts its weight across Asia in a manner that is reminiscent of the old Monroe Doctrine, which saw the United States restrict other powers’ access to the Americas, according to Becker, who characterised China’s disposition as ‘this is my neighbourhood – stay out.”
Esper’s trip came after Commerce Secretary Ross took a delegation of American businesses on a November 3-8 tour of Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – a trip that saw deals announced such as the building by American electrical power company AES of a US$1.7-billion gas-fired power plant in Vietnam.
Vietnam has come under fire from Trump for its growing trade surplus with the United States – a surge that has come in part due to the so-called trade war with China, which has diverted some business to Vietnam as companies in China seek to evade American sanctions. Hanoi has scrambled to appease Trump, promising to import more goods from the United States to reduce the deficit. During Ross’s visit, Vietnam Airlines signed deals for “a multi-year engine service agreement with Pratt & Whitney valued at approximately $1 billion” and “a multi-million-dollar agreement with the technology company Sabre, adopting solutions that will strengthen their forecasting and inventory control capabilities,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
However Ross was quick to remind his Asian hosts of some of the Trump administration’s peeves: the Indo-Pacific region’s “significant trade imbalance — $1.23 trillion in imports to the United States but only $720 billion in exports” and of how the “economies of Asia prospered while the United States military secured sea lanes and open American markets powered Asia’s productivity growth.”
Such “America First” and pay-your-fair-share rhetoric, in this case, arguably better characterised as part of an Asia policy that puts confronting China first – over issues such as trade, technology and security – but at the expense of causes that the United States has in the past pressured Asian countries over.
“Given the new orientation of U.S. foreign policy perhaps democracy and human rights are not so high on the agenda,” said Leena Rikkilä Tamang, Asia and Pacific Regional Director at International IDEA, which this week published a study showing that although 62 per cent of countries are now democratic compared to only 26 per cent in 1975, the number of those democracies undergoing “democratic erosion” has more than doubled over the past decade.
To other analysts, however, the Trump administration’s aggressively anti-China policies and the skirting of old-school diplomacy are serving notice to Beijing’s allies in Asia, such as Cambodia, which has been seen as doing China’s bidding in ASEAN meetings about the South China Sea and which has stirred concerns in the United States over allegations it is allowing China build a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand.
“Trump himself is hopeless, but his administration has actually been harder on the [Cambodian] regime than Obama’s administration was and I think this is a wake-up call for Phnom Penh, said Sophal Ear, Associate Professor, Diplomacy & World Affairs, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “They thought the US was going to let them slide, that it was going to be an autocrat’s fiesta. Turns out being buddies with China means you’re going to get a target on your back.”Show