WASHINGTON, D.C. – Should U.S. President Donald Trump attend the two major Asian summits in Southeast Asia this November: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila, which will also be the site of what has become the annual U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting? As the administration’s Asia policy begins to get underway, this is being dubbed one of the early litmus tests of its engagement (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”).
It certainly would not be the end of the world if Trump were to miss both meetings. It is true that Obama’s attendance record is difficult for Trump to match, and that his failure to do so would only entrench perceptions that he believes in a more transactional foreign policy approach. But the reality is that the past three U.S. presidents have all missed or nearly missed Asian summits for various reasons ranging from domestic politics to ongoing crises in other regions (See: “The Pivot Lives On, With Or Without Obama”). More broadly, presidential attendance at Asian summits is neither the only metric of commitment nor the most meaningful one. In ordinary circumstances, other cabinet-level officials can attend in the president’s place, and headway can be made with individual countries as needed.
But this is no ordinary year, which is what makes the case for Trump’s attendance clearer than ever. This is the Trump administration’s first year in office, and this is the first time that Trump will have the opportunity to be at these summits in Asia. It is thus a valuable opportunity for him to both ease concerns about U.S. commitment to the region but also begin to lay out the administration’s approach to Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular in areas such as multilateralism, economic policy, alliances and partnerships, and democracy and human rights (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
First, Trump’s attendance would help ease uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular. While engagement is already underway with cabinet officials, the unconventional nature of the administration means that much of the region is unsure about the influence of each of these individuals and remains convinced that policy is concentrated in the hands of the White House more so than ever. That makes it additionally important for the U.S. president himself to be present when engaging Asian nations in the leading economic and political summits during his first year in office.
That engagement is badly needed. While Asian states are used to variations in U.S. commitment, it is difficult to recall when there have been so many questions about different aspects of U.S. policy all at the same time, from economics to human rights; from China to the Islamic State. Some countries wonder if transactionalism means that a deal at their expense is just around the corner. Others, especially in Southeast Asia, fear that a narrow, threat-oriented America First prism focused on terrorism and China will lead to missed opportunities in the economic realm, restrictions on their alignments, or even another U.S. quagmire in the Middle East.
Second, Trump can send a clear early signal about how his administration will approach multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific. Though administrations are often caricatured as being “bilateral” (George W. Bush) or “multilateral” (Barack Obama), in practice these are not as mutually exclusive as they are portrayed and all presidents tend to find their own balance of different approaches over time. Bush, for instance, started with securitizing APEC and selective attendance at ASEAN meetings but ended by knitting bilateral trade deals into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and paving the way for greater U.S. diplomatic engagement with ASEAN, a nuance that is often missed in superficial or partisan accounts.
Though naysayers had already prematurely written off any chance that Trump might embrace multilateralism given his nixing of TPP and neglect of ASEAN, the president himself has already shown signs of moderating his position in other instances. Most notably, after bashing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the campaign, Trump announced in late March that he would attend the summit in May. ASEAN is no NATO. But if the administration is smart, it will use its first ASEAN and EAS summit attendance – which coincides with the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding and the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations – to press for a more ambitious ASEAN and a more action-oriented EAS. The best way to do that is to show up in November and make that case directly.
Third, Trump, who does bring a business background to the table, can articulate U.S. trade and investment strategy in Asia. Trump’s ditching of the TPP was a blow to the United States economically and strategically, a point that China has been more than happy to underscore but that has made the region anxious. Filling the void can begin by making headway on high-standard bilateral trade deals with some countries within TPP like Japan, since these too could serve as a model for other pacts and write the rules for 21st century trade (See: “What Trump’s TPP Withdrawal Means for U.S. Asia Policy”). But it cannot end there. It needs to be complemented by broader initiatives as well as a clear sense of what the U.S. vision is for the region, lest that task is left to China.
Some of the hard work here will take place incrementally under the radar as it often does, including through dialogues and workshops Washington has with individual Asian countries. But Trump’s attendance at APEC can spotlight other inroads the administration is looking to make on trade and investment issues that are of interest to countries and companies in the region, either on its own or in collaboration with key partners like Japan. Vietnam would also be a logical place to do this considering that it was a member of the TPP. It was also at Hanoi’s last hosting of APEC in 2006 that Bush pushed for a long-term vision of establishing a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) that would encourage open, rather than closed integration and boost the pace of trade liberalization (See: “Beware the Myth of Warring U.S.-China Trade Pacts”).
Fourth, Trump can make build out two key U.S. alliances and partnerships in Southeast Asia that are vital to American security engagement with the subregion. Even if Trump is not convinced of the value of attending these summits on the basis of broader notions like commitment or multilateral engagement alone, Vietnam and Philippines – both South China Sea claimants and the latter being central in the battle against the Islamic State – are both significant enough on their own to merit U.S. attendance from a narrower America First perspective. The Philippines, one of five U.S. treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific, has further cemented itself as a key location for America’s military presence with the inking of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). And the historic lifting of the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam last year has opened up new possibilities for security ties there too, including eventual U.S. arms sales (See: “Why Obama’s Lifting of the Vietnam Arms Embargo Matters”).
That said, both relationships could benefit significantly from the boost of a presidential visit. In the case of the Philippines, a summit between Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila could help reset relations following a period of drift in the alliance since Duterte took office last June (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”). It would also help blunt the broader narrative that several U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific – from Seoul to Bangkok to Canberra – are currently in peril all at the same time (See: “Trump and the US-Thailand Alliance”). And in the case of Vietnam, though other high-level meetings are already in the works, a presidential visit would be both a clear, early signal of the Trump administration’s commitment to the relationship and an action-forcing event that could lead to some meaningful deliverables. Making headway with both countries is also part of the larger U.S. objective of forging a broader strategy designed to manage both the opportunities and risks of China’s rise.
Fifth and lastly, Trump can begin to address the uncertainties around how his administration will balance ideals and interests in its Asia policy. While Trump is far from the first U.S. president to walk this balance, the worries in this realm are unusually high given the warmth demonstrated to some authoritarian leaders and the cold water he has poured over the idea of the United States as a democratic example. Ignoring or sidestepping rights promotion in pursuit of narrow U.S. interests not an option; it is an intrinsic part of the American identity and a routine part of the U.S. foreign policy process. Getting started early would also enable the administration to get ahead of events. With elections in Malaysia and Cambodia coming up in 2018 that could both see either historic transitions or contested outcomes, the Trump team could otherwise quickly find itself on the back foot.
Vietnam and the Philippines are both key litmus tests for how the new administration balances ideals and interests in its Asia policy. To make real strides in ties with both countries, Trump and his team will need to ensure that rights concerns remain addressed. In the case of Vietnam, though the ruling communist party has made some improvements in recent years, there are still some lingering U.S. concerns, and TPP unfortunately has removed one productive way through which they could be addressed. Meanwhile, the Philippines under Duterte has emerged as the posterchild for the subregion’s democratic regression, with additional scrutiny now on Manila’s rights record. Addressing rights concerns in both these cases need not be done in a heavy-handed way as they have at times been done in the past, or through the same nimbler tools that the Obama administration used. But the administration cannot simply turn a blind eye to this.
We should be under no illusions that these considerations alone will dictate whether Trump ultimately does go to Manila and Hanoi for these summits or not this year. The most valuable commodity in Washington is the president’s time, and how he chooses to spend it will be based on other considerations at home and around the world that he and his staff will have to weigh much closer to November. This is, after all, going to be at least a weeklong trip that will chalk up some serious miles, as opposed to a summit that Trump could convene with ASEAN leaders in the United States that would require a lot less travel on this part. Attending these summits is also not without its share of risks, be it a Trump tweet or a Duterte tantrum. But for now, the strategic case could not be more compelling.