Trump, APEC, ASEAN and Asia-Pacific (Dis)Integration

While the Russian media were agonizing over what they viewed as the seminal question of whether the Russian and US presidents would meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Da Nang, Donald Trump offered one surprise after another for those used to the polished rhetoric at events of this kind. He kept it coming several days later in Manila which hosted several summit events for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its dialogue partners.

In my account of Mr. Trump’s deviations from the accepted norms I will limit myself to mentioning only three elements which tend to portray him not as an unpredictable and eccentric newsmaker, but rather as a politician of a much more consistent approach than is commonly thought.

First, he used the APEC meeting, which until now focused on market liberalization and export-import facilitation, as a pulpit for calling for “fair trade” instead of “free trade,” placing himself at odds with Chinese President Xi Jinping who has taken up this slogan recently. Basically, this was Trump’s warning to Asian countries that have a huge trade surplus with the US, primarily China, that they will have to increase imports or face serious restrictions in terms of access to the US market.

Second, Trump’s participation in APEC Leaders’ Meeting was very selective. Having set his focus on crafting beneficial bilateral deals instead of multilateral agreements such as the Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (championed by China, by the way), Trump clearly sought to avoid events that emphasized multilateral cooperation within APEC. Perhaps the most striking example in this respect was Trump’s failure to show up at meetings between APEC leaders and the leaders of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Of the ten ASEAN member states, these three are the only ones who are not part of APEC. The Vietnamese hosts conceived this meeting as a show of ASEAN unity, as well as a way to emphasize that the three Indo-Chinese countries belong in the “greater Asia-Pacific family” and to raise awareness among APEC countries about the development needs of these far from prosperous ASEAN members. By skipping this meeting, Trump brushed off all these considerations as devoid of any significance. Could this be attributable to the extremely close ties these three countries maintain with China?

Third, it was striking that in his public statements Trump talked about the Indo-Pacific Region, instead of the Asia-Pacific, a core concept in the APEC vocabulary. The concept of the Indo-Pacific Region emerged a decade ago in expert discourse. It was invented not to designate a new regional economic cooperation framework but as a reminder of the need to uphold the sacred principle of the freedom of navigation in these waters. Freedom from whom? Well, from China, of course. Back in the days of George W. Bush there was an attempt to build the so-called Quad, a four-party military alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. The project stagnated during the Obama administration, but it seems now that Trump is intent on reversing the momentum. Senior officials of the four Quad countries met on the margins of the East Asia Summit in Manila. Some believe that their meeting featured an exchange of views on reanimating this alliance.

Any honest accounting of Trump’s appearances in Da Nang and Manila must describe them as outlining the all-encompassing confrontation that awaits China unless it backs away from its aspiration to replace the US as the dominant power in the APR. Since China does not seem to be willing to make any concessions, a strategic crack is becoming increasingly apparent at the very core of this emerging region, standing in the way of integration processes which could have otherwise covered the entire Asia-Pacific Region. If so, optimistic forecasts on the future of APEC or any other possible cooperation frameworks that include the US and China are clearly premature.

Furthermore, creating frameworks with just the US or just China is equally challenging since the inclusion of one country will be viewed by the other as a challenge.

As for ASEAN, which marks its 50th anniversary in 2017, one of its main, if not central, achievements in all these years was the recognition of its coordinating role in building what is called “the new regional architecture of cooperation and security in the APR.” While the notion of ASEAN’s centrality was initially introduced at APEC, it has since then gained ground at the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and The East Asia Summit. However, if integration efforts in Asia-Pacific are replaced by processes of disintegration, launched, in fact, by the United States, where and with regard to whom will ASEAN implement its centrality?

Do ASEAN member states and the majority of APEC participants understand that they were presented with a “black mark”? Let’s hope that they do, and that the Russian Foreign Ministry and presidential staff did not fail to notice what their US partner was up to, outside of showing respect in his interactions with the Russian president.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.