This year’s annual summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations involving its member states and their dialogue partners will be remembered as potentially historic failures. The shortcomings are not by ASEAN, but by two of its diplomatic partners — the United States and India — who failed to engage the organization with the seriousness that demonstrates their commitment to the region and its future.
The ASEAN summits are intended to cement the organization’s “centrality” to regional discussions. The group has long feared manipulation or marginalization by outside powers — Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, Washington and Beijing today — and as a result demanded that those governments, along with others that seek to engage the region, do so on ASEAN’s terms. The organization has succeeded and every government puts “ASEAN centrality” at the forefront of remarks to regional audiences.
Words are not enough, though. More indicative for the region’s officials and citizens was the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to skip the summit for the second consecutive year, preferring instead to host the Washington Nationals, the World Series champions, at the White House, and to campaign for the Republican candidate in the Kentucky state gubernatorial election. He dispatched national security adviser Robert O’Brien in his place, who took office just last month and is not a Cabinet official.
ASEAN’s displeasure was plain. Just three ASEAN leaders showed up for the U.S.-ASEAN summit with O’Brien: the ASEAN Summit chair, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand; Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam, who will chair next year’s meeting; and Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, the official ASEAN liaison for U.S. officials. ASEAN’s other seven countries sent foreign ministers. Unofficially, regional leaders called the low level of ASEAN representation a snub, noting that it was the first time any participating country had sent a representative lower ranked than foreign minister to the summit.
The U.S. move makes no sense. ASEAN is central to regional diplomacy; it is at the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, with a population of nearly 650 million, it is a huge and growing market for the U.S. Last year, two-way trade in goods and services between the U.S. and ASEAN was $334 billion. U.S. investment in ASEAN reached $271 billion in 2018, more than the U.S. has in Japan and China combined. For a president obsessed with economic performance, Trump’s disdain for ASEAN is inexplicable.
Equally confusing was India’s decision to be the lone dissenter among the 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact that was also discussed at the meetings. New Delhi has been the largest obstacle to an agreement to create a free trade zone among 3.6 billion people and which accounts for around one-third of global gross domestic product. India made clear that it would not bend despite being the lone holdout. If it hoped that obstinacy might force additional concessions — it fears a flood of imports from China — then it was wrong.
Couched in domestic terms, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hesitance makes some sense. He faced harsh criticism by the opposition in India. But Modi just won national elections and his position is strong. He styles himself an economic reformer and a diplomatic activist. Turning his back on RCEP undermines both objectives. Like Trump, ASEAN now looks at him as less engaged with the region and inclined to big words rather than action. If New Delhi seeks to shape regional rules and order, it must be part of such deals. This is a retreat from that high profile.
Presenting a better image was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who met on the sidelines of the summit, their first personal encounter since a brief handshake at the Group of 20 summit that Abe hosted in Osaka in June. According to spokepersons, they agreed during their 11-minute conversation that the bilateral relationship is “important” and affirmed that “their bilateral issues should be resolved through dialogues.”
That sounds like diplomatic boilerplate, but an actual encounter between the two leaders is a symbol of top-level commitment to working out the various disputes. It is a signal for their respective bureaucracies and for others. The follow-up will be critical and the two leaders’ continued engagement will be essential for success. They should learn from their U.S. and Indian counterparts that empty talk is easily seen through for what it is.