An old adage about the United States’ diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asia states that around 80 percent of the country’s success in the region can be achieved just by “showing up.” By participating in annual summits hosted or attended by ASEAN leaders, the conventional wisdom goes, the United States can put its best foot forward in its political and economic engagement of Southeast Asia.
While this adage has grown into somewhat of a cliché in recent years, especially as the growing geostrategic importance of Southeast Asia has significantly raised the barriers to successful engagement, its central premise – that the United States should attend and send appropriate counterparts to important annual summits hosted by ASEAN leaders – still very much rings true today.
On October 28, however, the White House broke with this conventional wisdom to announce that President Joe Biden would not attend one of three pivotal events to be held in Southeast Asia this month: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting (APECLM) in Bangkok.
While Biden will still travel to Southeast Asia this week for the first time in his presidency to meet with regional counterparts at both the ASEAN and G-20 Summits in Cambodia and Indonesia, he will dispatch Vice President Kamala Harris to attend the APECLM in his place.
That is a mistake.
According to the White House, the stated reason for the president’s absence from the APECLM is so that he can attend his granddaughter’s wedding – a reason already being derided as a snub by Thailand, the host of this year’s APEC forum, and one of only two U.S. treaty allies in Southeast Asia.
On November 7, for example, Robert Godec, the newly-appointed U.S. ambassador to Thailand, was dispatched to provide an explanation to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other senior Thai officials as to why Biden is unable to attend the APECLM. Godec and other U.S. officials will continue to be asked to address difficult questions about what Biden’s absence means for the sustained economic commitment of the United States to both Thailand and the greater Indo-Pacific region.
Other world leaders, including Xi Jinping of China, Kishida Fumio of Japan, and Anthony Albanese of Australia, in contrast, have all committed to attending the APECLM in-person. It is standard practice for heads of state to lead their country’s delegations to the annual economic meeting, making Biden’s exit from the meeting even more troublesome. According to Prayut, 18 top leaders of the 21 APEC member economies have confirmed their attendance.
Although the APECLM is not traditionally an ASEAN-centric event, Biden’s absence, and Xi’s presence, is particularly problematic for the United States as it reinforces the perception of many ASEAN member-states that the United States’ economic engagement of the wider region is not a priority – and will continue to wane.
According to the annual State of Southeast Asia survey released by the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute in Singapore earlier this year, about 76.7 percent of respondents now believe that China is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia. In 2021 alone, ASEAN-China trade grew year-over-year by almost 20 percent, and the overall bilateral trade volume eclipsed $800 billion.
Even more puzzling about Biden’s absence from the APECLM is that the United States is slated to host next year’s APEC ministerial meetings and leaders’ summit for the first time since 2011. In late October, just a day before the White House announcement, the U.S. State Department even released a roadmap for their upcoming 2023 APEC host-year, announcing Detroit, Palm Springs, Honolulu, and Seattle as the upcoming locations for the forum’s high-profile meetings next year.
The decision of the United States to host APEC in 2023 comes at the behest of advisers who have pushed the Biden administration to better engage Indo-Pacific countries on trade as China’s economic clout throughout the region continues to grow at an alarming rate.
In May 2022, the Biden administration made its most serious attempt yet to step up its economic engagement in Asia via the successful launch of a new economic initiative called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). IPEF currently encompasses 14 Asian economies, and negotiations to work out details about the framework’s “four pillars” culminated with its first ministerial held in Los Angeles in September.
While the initial launch of IPEF was generally well-received, the leaders of many ASEAN economies remain skeptical that the framework will deliver on its promise of heightened regional economic prosperity. Most notably, the framework lacks market access provisions, leading negotiators to pursue a non-traditional approach to economic engagement. That workaround spotlights the domestic political constraints preventing the United States from rejoining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the free trade agreement Washington itself originally helped design.
Kasit Piromya, Thailand’s former foreign minister, noted in a recent interview that Biden’s absence from the APECLM would reinforce the perception that the United States is “too busy… distant, and aloof” to effectively engage with Thailand and the broader region – economically or otherwise. Feeding into this narrative isn’t just perception of some ASEAN elites, but also hard data.
Without taking into account his upcoming visits to Cambodia and Indonesia, Biden will have visited the Indo-Pacific region just once – trips to Japan and South Korea in May 2022 – since assuming the presidency last year. In direct contrast, he has embarked on five separate trips to Europe, visiting a total of nine countries – including five trips to the U.K. alone. While part of the reason for this prioritization is due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even before the outbreak of that war, Biden opted to dispatch senior officials within his administration to the Indo-Pacific region rather than attend in-person meetings himself.
In 2021, the White House dispatched Harris to Singapore and Vietnam; U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam; and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Indonesia and Malaysia. In May 2022, the White House also invited ASEAN leaders to Washington, D.C., for a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, bringing the leaders some ASEAN countries to the White House for the first time.
But while this form of direct engagement is certainly welcomed by Southeast Asians, it is no substitute for the president attending in-person ASEAN-led multilateral forums himself. In fact, when then-President Barack Obama missed the APECLM in 2013, dispatching U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his place, he admitted it was ill-advised, and quipped that doing so was “…like me not showing up at my own party.”
Biden’s absence from this year’s APECLM, alongside the growing perception among many ASEAN countries that his administration is too focused on the European continent, presents an opportunity to Xi Jinping. In November 2020, after then-President Donald Trump skipped the East Asia Summit, Beijing took the opportunity to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement and highlight Xi’s intention to join the CPTPP.
To avoid a repeat performance, Biden would be wise to reconsider his decision not to attend the APEC Leaders’ Meeting this year.