WASHINGTON – The United States has downgraded its participation in back-to-back Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok next week, a move bound to disappoint Asian partners worried by China’s expanding influence.
Although President Donald Trump will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile in mid-November, the White House said the most senior U.S. official in Bangkok for the East Asian Summit and U.S.-ASEAN summit will be Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He will lead the U.S. delegation to the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, grouping government officials and business executives, on the sidelines of the EAS.
Trump has named White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien as his special envoy to the summits, the White House said.
David Stilwell, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, will also be in Bangkok, but the U.S. delegation will be significantly outranked by other regional players, including Japan, India and China.
Despite declaring the Indo-Pacific “the single most consequential region for America’s future” in a Pentagon strategy report this year, the Trump administration has steadily scaled back the U.S. presence at the Bangkok gatherings.
Trump attended the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Manila in 2017 but has never attended a full EAS meeting. Vice President Mike Pence represented the United States at the meetings in Singapore last year.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attended every U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summit during his presidency except in 2013, due to a government shutdown.
Asian diplomats say the lack of top-level U.S. representation in Bangkok will be a significant if not unexpected disappointment in a region increasingly concerned about China’s fast-expanding influence.
Trump plans to attend the primarily economics-focused meeting of APEC in Chile, where he has said he hopes to sign the first part of a deal with China to resolve a prolonged and damaging trade war.
However, diplomats and analysts say Trump’s absence in Bangkok will raise questions about U.S. commitment to the region, especially after his withdrawal from the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in 2017, shortly after he took office.
Last year, Trump, who is currently embroiled in a congressional impeachment inquiry, sent Pence in his place to attend the APEC, ASEAN and East Asia summits.
Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, called U.S. attendance plans for Bangkok “a real issue.”
“As Woody Allen said, either 80 or 85 percent of life is showing up. And in the Indo-Pacific, that’s definitely true,” he told a news briefing previewing the summits. “If you show up, you’re given praise, whatever you actually say or do. If you don’t show up, it’s a real problem.”
Amy Searight, who was a senior defense official under Obama and is now a senior adviser at CSIS, said the EAS summit has become the premier strategic dialogue forum for the Asia-Pacific region, drawing leaders from China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as those of the 10 states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “It’ll be headlines in the region that no senior American leader is coming to a summit with 17 other leaders from the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
“And I think it really does call into question … how serious this administration is in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy,” she said. “And it really just calls into question the reliability of the United States as a strategic partner to this region.”