Vice President Mike Pence, after a brief but relatively successful trip in Asia, rushed back to Washington ahead of schedule this week; the U.S. administration plans to tackle a very important set of domestic priorities including tax reform and keeping the federal government open. Pence reduced his time in Honolulu at the end of his trip. More important, as Reuters notes, portions of his trip in Indonesia and Australia were overshadowed by the increasingly tense environment in Northeast Asia, which now includes the reported chance of another North Korean missile or nuclear test Tuesday. As Reuters reports:
While he spoke with business leaders in each country [including Indonesia and Australia], Pence's trip was overshadowed by rising tensions in North Korea, where it is feared another nuclear test could be conducted soon in defiance of United Nations sanctions.
Pence did have time in Indonesia to visit a mosque, talk up potential trade ties, and praise the country moderate religious practices and vibrant democracy---although Indonesia’s tolerance and secular democracy may have suffered a blow during the weeks before the Jakarta governor’s election.
Pence also did affirm to Australian leaders that the Trump administration will uphold the refugee resettlement deal that the Obama administration drafted with Canberra. Pence also declared that “Australia is and always will be one of America’s closed allies and truest friends,” and during the visit to Asia he announced that the U.S. president would attend the ASEAN leaders’ summit in November in the Philippines, which is an important signal of Washington’s commitment to the region.
Still, Pence’s time in Indonesia and Australia was overshadowed by crises in other parts of the region, other parts of the world, and the United States’ own rocky domestic politics---a kind of overshadowing of trips to Southeast Asia that has become the norm in recent years, no matter who is in charge in Washington. Barack Obama’s ASEAN summit in February 2016 was overshadowed by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the immediate political wrangling in Washington during the aftermath of Scalia’s death. Other, previous visits to Southeast Asia and the Pacific by Obama were overshadowed by terrorist attacks in Paris, the fallout from Brexit, and---again---tensions in Northeast Asia.
Many of the crises that have attracted attention from U.S. leaders during visits to Southeast Asia or summits with Southeast Asian leaders are outside of the control of U.S. policymakers, although the challenges in U.S. domestic politics certainly are not. But this repeated scenario---visits to the region cut short or dominated by events outside Southeast Asia---reinforce that it remains extremely challenging for any administration to place a more intense focus on ASEAN and/or Australia. This is, after all, a region that is relatively stable, has no nuclear powers, and has, for four decades, been only a modest priority for U.S. policymakers.