US apathy for EAS will unite Asian countries

By Yu Qun Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/4 20:13:40

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (fifth from left) joins hands with ASEAN leaders during the 22nd ASEAN-China summit in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday. ASEAN and China reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing regional connectivity, while noting the principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness and ASEAN centrality, according to a statement issued at the summit. Photo: Xinhua

The absence of US President Donald Trump at the 35th ASEAN Summit and related Summits that kicked off in Bangkok on Sunday has led to brouhaha in the international community. 

Leaders of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their partners gathered to discuss major regional issues in the Thailand capital. 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev participated in the summits. However, the absence of Trump from the East Asia Summit for the third time caused consternation in the host. 

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is in Bangkok as the highest official of the US, but he only participated in the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, which was attended by government officials and corporate executives. Robert O'Brien, the assistant to the US president for national security affairs who took office on September 18, attended the summit on behalf of Trump. Diplomats and analysts say Trump's absence in Bangkok will raise questions about US commitment to the region, the New York Times reported. 

Thailand, which holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN this year, celebrated the 200th anniversary of the establishment of relations with the US in 2018, and the Southeast Asian nation is one of the five major US allies in the Asia-Pacific region. On October 25, the US government announced to suspend $1.3 billion in trade preferences for Thailand under the Generalized System of Preferences based on its failure to adequately provide internationally recognized worker rights. This has cast a shadow over bilateral relations while the US government's contempt for the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok has hurt its relationship with Thailand. 

In fact, Trump's behavior is completely in line with the way he acts and thinks. Given to unilateralism and protectionism, the Trump administration resists multilateralism and global free trade, and hopes to exert pressure on other countries through bilateral mechanisms to realize the unilateral interests of the US. 

The most important issue at the East Asia Summit this year is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that the Trump administration is most opposed to. Although India still has certain concerns about opening up its agricultural markets, the beginning of the implementation phase of the agreement, which aims to establish a unified market by cutting tariff and non-tariff barriers, will probably be announced. 

Involving about half of the global population, 32.2 percent of global GDP, 29.1 percent of global trade and 32.5 percent of global investment, RCEP will become the most promising regional free trade agreement covering the largest number of people upon completion.

This is a momentous move not only for Asia but also humanity at large. But the US, the world's leading economy, is not involved. Once the RCEP takes shape, it will promote free trade in East Asia and pose a huge challenge to US interests. Naturally, the Trump administration won't be happy, let alone witness it or congratulate the participants. 

In sharp contrast to Trump's approach, Chinese Premier Li published a signed article in a number of mainstream media outlets in Thailand before he set off for the country, regarding his visit to Thailand as "a visit to relatives and neighbors" and expressing his ardent expectations for the maintenance of East Asia's peace and stability, the continuous promotion of open cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, and adherence to the principles of dialogue and consultation. 

Premier Li's visit and words of enthusiasm show the importance the Chinese government attaches to ASEAN. It demonstrates Beijing's confidence in cooperating with the bloc and other East Asian countries to build a prosperous Asia. In contrast, Trump's continuing unilateralism and the display of a Cold War mind-set will surely be cast aside by East Asian countries, promoting unity in this region. The US contempt for the East Asia Summit will promote the unity of Asian countries and make them work together for a peaceful, stable and prosperous future.

The author is deputy director of the Military Diplomacy Research Center of the College of International Relations, National University of Defense Technology.

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