Sincerity of US charm offensive in Indo-Pacific questioned

By Cheng Hanping Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/8 22:23:40

Photo: GT

At the recently held 35th ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, the absence of top-level US representatives made news. However, Robert O'Brien, the US special envoy and White House national security adviser representing US President Donald Trump surprised everyone by inviting the heads of the 10 ASEAN members to attend a "special summit" in the US with Trump. What does this signal?

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from May 31 to June 2, then acting US defense secretary Patrick Shanahan explained the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in detail, which shows that Trump's Indo-Pacific geopolitical pattern is gradually taking shape. But just a few months later Trump himself was absent at the East Asia Summit and this was not the first time.

Trump's absence lent itself to a variety of excuses and interpretations. Although he is busy with domestic affairs such as campaigning, fighting impeachment, and disaster relief, it at least indicates that the alleged emphasis on Asia-Pacific and ASEAN plays second fiddle to private issues of the US president. Neither the election campaign nor the impeachment is at a critical juncture, so there is no real need for Trump to stay at home.

President Trump has not participated in the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-US Summit for two consecutive years. In 2018, he sent Vice President Mike Pence as his envoy. In comparison, the level of people representing Trump at the East Asia Summit this year (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Robert O'Brien) is significantly degraded. Obviously, the US has always claimed to attach importance to the Asia-Pacific region and tried to consolidate the Indo-Pacific Strategy, but it still makes the world doubt its sincerity over these issues. 

Thus in Bangkok, 7 of the 10 heads of ASEAN members cold-shouldered a meeting organized by US delegates. According to media reports, among the heads of ASEAN, only the host Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Nguyen Xuan Phuc, prime minister of the next host country Vietnam, attended the meeting with US officials. 

During the summit, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), of which the US is not part, has further got a boost. Once officially signed in 2020, the agreement will be widely recognized as a great progress for China. It is worth mentioning that in addition to 10 ASEAN members, US allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are involved in the agreement. The RCEP negotiations have succeeded after Trump announced his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China's influence is outshining the US.

At the end of the East Asia Summit, O'Brien read a letter from Trump that included an invitation. "I would also like to take this opportunity to offer an invitation to all the leaders of the ASEAN to join me in the US for a special summit, meeting at a time of mutual convenience in the first quarter of 2020," the letter said.

At the same time, just as the summit was ongoing, a report issued by the US State Department on November 4 claimed that the Trump administration has made US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region a top priority since it took power. To date, US support to the region "has included $2.9 billion." Ross also stressed during the meeting, "With a cumulative $271 billion invested, there is $29 billion more US FDI (foreign direct investment) in ASEAN than in China and Japan combined." 

In addition, US delegates at the meeting spared no effort to attack China and discredit Beijing over the South China Sea issue. While speaking at the ASEAN-US summit, O'Brien was arrogant and provocative, claiming that China's actions at sea might usurp the natural resources that belong to Southeast Asian countries. He said Beijing intimidates and prevents ASEAN from developing offshore resources and developing oil and gas reserves worth $2.5 trillion. 

It seemed like US delegates were attempting to save face and compete with China.

It is still unclear if Trump's invitation to ASEAN leaders for a special summit will work. Nonetheless, abandoning the Kurds in the Middle East has undoubtedly tarred US reputation.

The author is senior research fellow and professor at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University.

Newspaper headline: Is US charm offensive in Indo-Pacific sincere?

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