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The planned summit between representatives from the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and U.S. President Donald J. Trump in Las Vegas has been postponed, because of the coronavirus threat. The summit was supposed to be a sign that the administration is not ignoring Southeast Asia. Postponing it right now makes sense. But even with a summit, the administration cannot paper over ASEAN’s internal problems or the tensions between ASEAN and the United States. Many Southeast Asian leaders have become so wary of the White House’s unreliability that they have reluctantly embraced China.
The administration has proclaimed that the Indo-Pacific region is a top priority, but last autumn the administration sent a relatively low-level delegation to the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Bangkok. A recent survey of regional opinion leaders by Singaporean think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found Southeast Asians trust China less than the United States or Japan. Yet the survey showed that, if forced to choose, 70 percent of Southeast Asians would align with Beijing rather than Washington.
Whenever the meeting is actually held, the White House will emphasize how ASEAN fits into its “Free and Open Indo Pacific” vision, which focuses on promoting fair and reciprocal trade, supporting regional institutions including ASEAN, protecting sovereignty, and promoting good governance, among other priorities. Trump will likely emphasize how the administration has stood up for these concepts, including by conducting more freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea and launching new governance initiatives in places like Myanmar.
The administration also will outline U.S. economic alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). One U.S. response is the nascent Blue Dot Network, a plan for governments, civil societies, and private sectors to create a set of high standards for infrastructure projects. This higher-quality infrastructure would supposedly contrast with the BRI, which administration officials claim supports poor-quality infrastructure and traps countries in debt (a debatable argument).
Some White House policies are relatively popular in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with China’s influence activities and militarization in the South China Sea, countries such as Singapore and Vietnam have mostly welcomed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific idea, which resists Beijing’s encroachment on other states’ territorial waters and meddling in other societies. Yet other mainland Southeast Asian states care less about the South China Sea. And the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has shifted toward China’s orbit.
The Trump administration has had little success convincing regional states that it has an alternative to the BRI or an effective trade policy. And Many Southeast Asian states still welcome the massive infrastructure funding BRI can provide, seeing Blue Dot and other U.S. initiatives as limited, in terms of actual aid amounts, compared to BRI. Beijing has launched prominent BRI projects in Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian states.
And ASEAN is faltering on its own, limiting what it could accomplish with any partner. ASEAN members cannot agree on how to handle long-term issues, such as Beijing’s South China Sea policy or climate change, which could place much of Southeast Asia underwater by 2050. ASEAN’s structure, in which major decisions are made consensus, enables this disunity. Even on pressing short-term issues, including the coronavirus and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, ASEAN usually punts. When the Rohingya crisis accelerated in 2017, with the Myanmar security forces reportedly committing ethnic cleansing, ASEAN could only agree to provide some minimal relief for refugees, whitewashing abuses facilitated by Myanmar’s government.
Since the prospect of ASEAN changing how it operates remains miniscule, and the Trump administration prefers to deal with states bilaterally, ASEAN is likely to be even more marginalized in the coming years—whether or not a summit is eventually held.