It used to be that when someone was accused of “phoning it in,” they were said to be doing a task without enthusiasm, making the bare minimum effort required. The saying has assumed new meaning in the era of COVID-19 when telecommuting has become the norm and “phoning it in” makes a virtue of necessity. Remarkably, U.S. President Donald Trump couldn’t even phone it in for last weekend’s virtual summit meetings with regional leaders, exposing as hollow the U.S. insistence that relations with Southeast Asia are important. That is a mistake, one that the Biden administration can and should fix.
Trump’s absence marked the third consecutive year in which he failed to show up for the annual get-together; the White House says he is busy challenging the results of the Nov. 3 election. His official calendar during the three days of meetings showed two briefings on Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s program to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, and golf outings; most of the weekend is open.
With the president otherwise occupied, the United States was represented at the ASEAN summits for the second consecutive year by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. He shared the screen with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If O’Brien is right, and “the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership has become even more important as we work together to combat the coronavirus,” you’d think that the president would make time out of his not-so-busy day or at least tap Vice President Mike Pence to be his stand-in.
Trump has little patience for the pomp and ritual of ASEAN summitry and it’s hard not to be skeptical about those meetings’ accomplishments. Mike Green and Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explain that “Southeast Asia is politically and strategically diverse. ASEAN is fractious and often ineffective. … Most Southeast Asian states are unwilling to explicitly call out bad behavior by China or publicly support U.S. counter efforts.” Much of the value of the summits is the opportunity for bilateral and trilateral meetings on the sidelines — and in a virtual world, those opportunities aren’t so hard to come by.
Still, appearances matter. ASEAN governments put great stock in those rituals and the U.S. failure to engage at the senior-most levels does great damage to its image and credibility among those nations. As the Trump administration claims that it is locked in a fierce competition with Beijing for regional influence, it makes no sense to ignore the region’s showcase event and otherwise show indifference, if not contempt, for their priorities.
Head-scratching as that behavior may be, it makes even less sense when this year’s conclave produced something of genuine substance and significance. Sunday, (virtually) assembled leaders signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, the 15 signatories of which (10 ASEAN members and Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) account for about 30% of global gross domestic product and population. Proposed in 2012, RCEP has been eight years in the making. It’s a big deal. It sets shared rules and standards for a range of economic activities and reduces tariffs substantially, and is forecast to add almost $200 billion annually to the global economy by 2030. It also creates a truly Asian economic space and is a step toward the forging of an Asian political entity. (Ponder the evolution of the European Union before dismissing that claim.)
Be wary of reporting about RCEP, however. It is not a Chinese-inspired plot to dominate the region. It was created and led by ASEAN, primarily as a way of cleaning up the so-called “noodle bowl” of existing regional and sub-regional trade agreements. China is an important force and India’s withdrawal from negotiations last year did remove a potential counterweight to Beijing’s influence. But Japan, the world’s third largest economy, is a member and the “shallowness” of the deal — it doesn’t eliminate all tariffs and has minimal impact on services, investment or standards — means that the pact’s influence is limited.
If Americans worry about rising Chinese influence in the region, then the proper response is engaging to counter it. There was a tool to do that in the economic sphere — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — but candidate Trump denounced the deal throughout the 2016 campaign and on his third day in office signed an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from it. CPTPP is a high-quality agreement that addresses the deficiencies of RCEP, possessing both depth and breadth. Far too late in his administration did Barack Obama make the case that TPP’s greatest value was more as a strategic asset — a device for rule making — than an economic instrument. CPTPP is set to expand as several countries, China reportedly among them, consider membership.
U.S. participation is a long shot. Biden has said that he would try to renegotiate terms, but has not committed to rejoining. Congress (on both the left and the right) is likely to oppose membership and it isn’t clear how far current CPTPP members would go to accommodate Washington’s demands.
Biden should give them reason to. He understands the need to be present, to make appearances and engage on ASEAN’s terms. He appreciates the region’s importance to the U.S. in general — ASEAN is the U.S.’s fourth largest trade partner, vital to its supply chains, a rapidly expanding market and includes increasingly important security partners — but also because of the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical dynamics. The greatest challenge, as Green and Poling explained in their recent analysis, will be reconciling U.S. calls for democratic governance and associated norms with regional governments’ aversion to elevating the priority of values in policy making.
Engagement should not mean uncritical acceptance of ASEAN’s policies and priorities, however. The organization insists that it will not take sides in the competition between China and the West, a position that makes some sense given the range of views within the region, China’s proximity and its importance to member economies, all of which must be balanced by U.S. distance and growing doubts about Washington’s commitment and credibility.
Then again, ASEAN shouldn’t have to choose sides. It should be ready to support principles and norms articulated in the ASEAN Charter and member countries’ national constitutions that have been instrumental to their success. Failure to do so feeds a view that Southeast Asia won’t stand up for itself, which contributes to the marginalization that ASEAN is trying to avoid. And standing for those principles shouldn’t be too hard since, almost without exception, majorities across the region share Western concerns about Chinese behavior and long-term ambitions.
Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of Pacific Forum (and my former boss), argues that internal and external strains on ASEAN are pushing the organization to a crisis point. He acknowledges ASEAN’s successes: “As long as there was no serious security challenge facing its members, confidence building measures (CBMs) provided value added and helped create an atmosphere of cooperation. This was fine as long as all members were on good behavior.”
But he warns that ASEAN’s continuing reliance on consensus, which allows one holdout to block action by the group, threatens its credibility and viability. Cossa charges that Beijing “has bought off two ASEAN members (Cambodia and Laos) while renting, if not buying, a third (Philippines under Duterte). Since ASEAN and its offspring operate by consensus, ‘at a pace comfortable to all’ (which in truth means comfortable to the slowest among them) it has lost its effectiveness.”
His thinking, once heretical, is gaining popularity. Singapore’s former senior diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan, suggested that Cambodia and Laos be suspended from ASEAN because they were influenced by a foreign power. Taking such a bold step only makes sense if the U.S. is present in and committed to the region. That requires much more than a phone call, whether old style or a new-fangled high-tech version.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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