President Donald Trump will skip two major summits in Asia in November, a move that could stoke concerns in the region about the US’s reliability as a counterweight to China.
The White House said Friday that Vice President Mike Pence would travel to Singapore for an 18-nation summit hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, before heading to Papua New Guinea for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering. The APEC summit is normally attended by 21 leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The decision removes a potential avenue for Trump to meet with Xi as a trade war between the US and China deepens. The US is leaning toward a fresh round of tariffs against Chinese imports, this time for US$200 billion in goods, in what would mark a significant escalation. Xi and Trump are expected to attend the Group of 20 summit in Argentina later in November, though.
Trump’s absence is also likely to fuel concerns among Asian leaders who want the US to push back against China’s increasing economic and military might.
Trump administration officials have been promoting a new “Indo-Pacific” strategy to bolster its commitment to the fast-growing region, after Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and questioned the cost of security alliances with Japan and South Korea.
“His absence would doubtlessly solidify the impression that America has essentially abandoned its traditional presence in the Asia Pacific, not to mention the non-starter Indo-Pacific,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior adviser for international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
“Not a good move when trying to show the region how important the Indo-Pacific strategy is,” Conor Cronin, research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said on Twitter. Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, simply tweeted “Mistake.”
Without Trump, Xi will have more space to advocate for Chinese trade and development projects, such as his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Xi was the first leader to confirm his attendance to the APEC meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where he also plans to host his own summit with Pacific leaders.
“Symbolism matters. The Chinese have made gains when his predecessors have not attended,” tweeted author and commentator Gordon Chang.
Although US leaders have attended the events in recent years, missing them isn’t without precedent. In 2007, then US President George W. Bush drew flak for rescheduling a planned meeting with Asean leaders in Singapore.
Former President Barack Obama, whose administration announced a pivot in military and diplomatic resources to Asia, skipped the October 2013 APEC meeting in Indonesia while the federal government faced a shutdown crisis.
Obama’s absence that year was seen as a gift to China, whose officials emphasized their interest in the region to countries in attendance. Similarly, in November, a large Chinese contingent is expected in Port Moresby to promote Belt and Road.
Allies put their best face on Trump’s decision. Newly installed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters during a trip to Jakarta on Saturday that Trump’s decision to tend to matters at home was understandable, adding that Pence “speaks with the authority of the president.”
Morrison invited Trump to visit Australia as part of his Asian swing during a “very warm” phone call after becoming prime minister in August, local media reported. His predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, also invited Trump to Australia.
The Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed Pence’s visit to the Southeast Asian city-state, noting in a statement that it would be his first as vice president.
The Asian summits come days after midterm Congressional elections, which may determine Trump’s ability to withstand investigations into Russian campaign interference and election-season payments to alleged mistresses. While Democratic leaders have largely avoided talking about impeaching Trump, Republican losses in the House or the Senate would greatly increase the risk of congressional action.
Still, Trump plans to visit Paris on Nov. 11 for a commemoration of the armistice ending World War I, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement on Friday. On the same trip, he’ll visit Ireland “to renew the deep and historic ties between our two nations,” Sanders added. During his trip to South America to attend the Group of 20 meeting he’ll also travel to Colombia, she said.
After the US withdrawal from the TPP, trade ministers from the 11 remaining participant nations — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — signed a new agreement in Chile on March 8.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said recent efforts by American officials in the region should help offset Trump’s absence. Among them: Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced $300 million in regional security funding at an Asean meeting earlier this month, and the US military is currently among nine nations participating annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercises in Singapore.
“The U.S. will still be regarded and expected to remain committed and engaged with the region and there’ll still be significant efforts of regional countries to keep the U.S. presence in the region as the China shadow looms in the background,” Koh said.