ASEAN leaders will meet in Bangkok today for the annual leaders’ summit, but, for the second year in a row,
ASEAN leaders will meet in Bangkok today for the annual leaders’ summit, but, for the second year in a row, US President Donald Trump will be missing.
Instead, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien will represent Washington. Such disinterest is not surprising given Trump’s view of regional forums like ASEAN as ineffective. Expect the Trump administration to continue concentrating on bilateral ties with individual ASEAN countries at the expense of relations with ASEAN as a whole.
Ultimately, the White House risks misunderstanding a growing divergence of interests. The US agenda promotes a “rules-based order” and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea territorial dispute. ASEAN is more focused on solving domestic instability—with Myanmar, the Philippines and others facing ongoing internal security crises.
ASEAN views the ongoing US-China trade war rather than freedom of navigation as higher regional priorities; it doesn’t necessarily view China as a threat to international sea lanes like Washington does. Ongoing disinterest from the US advantages China in the long-term as Beijing fills the vacuum leave by Washington with regional economic agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Belt and Road infrastructural investment.
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