From the impeachment move to this week’s partial boycott by Asean, Donald Trump presides over the United States of America in unsplendid isolation. He has been rebuffed by the Association of South-east Asian Nations, signifying the overwhelming failure of his diplomacy. It shall not be easy for the US to shore up its image in the wake of the snub, effected by a concert of Asian nations.
Indeed, White House has expressed concern with Asean leaders for their “intentional effort to embarrass” President Trump by partially boycotting an Asean-US summit that was slated for Monday in Bangkok.
This was the least that was expected of the sideshow, however critical in the context of the US equation with the Asian bloc. “A full or partial boycott by Asean leaders will be seen as an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America and this will be very damaging to the substance of the Asean-US relations,” was the core of the message from Washington.
The 10-member bloc decided to downgrade part of its representation for the Asean-US summit in response to Trump’s decision to skip the event. The decision was made during a working dinner last Friday night during which “Asean foreign ministers decided to form a troika of three leaders only” to meet with the US National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien. Subsequently, Asean leaders confirmed the three-leader representation and that seven other member states would be represented by their foreign ministers.
The troika consists of the leaders of Thailand, the current ASEAN chair; Laos, the country coordinator for Asean-US relations; and Vietnam as the incoming ASEAN chair for 2020. Trump has been accused of “turning his back” on Asian allies after pulling out of the major trade pact. China, the fellow super power, pursues its own deals and investment projects in the region.
The trans-Pacific tension between a bloc of nations and a super power has been a striking feature of this year’s Asean summit in Bangkok. Members have rallied against protectionism amidst fears of sluggish global growth, made worse by the US-China trade war. Trump’s absence has sparked concern about a lack of US engagement in the Indo-Pacific at a time when China is increasing its clout in the region.
Most other countries have been represented by their Presidents or Prime Ministers, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang present in the Bangkok conference. Since assuming office, Trump has only attended an Asean-US summit once, in Manila in 2017, and has never attended full East Asia Summit meetings.
Last year, he sent Vice-President Mike Pence in his place. Clearly, the downgrading of representation ~ this time either way ~ flies in the face of diplomatic protocol. Trump’s afterthought of inviting South-east Asian leaders to a “special summit” in the United States early next year appears to be a response to the veiled criticism.