At the White House Monday, Trump said he will “probably” be visiting the Philippines as part of his 12-day trip to Asia early next month. A National Security Council spokesman told me Trump will be in Manila Nov. 12 and 13 and will meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and others. But Trump will not travel the additional 52 miles to the Philippine city of Angeles on Nov. 14 for the East Asia Summit, an annual conference of Asian and world leaders that focuses on the strategic future of the region.
“The President’s trip to Asia is extremely lengthy and will be his longest to date – his return to the U.S. on the evening of Nov. 13 is entirely schedule-driven,” the spokesman said. “You should not read anything into his being absent on the 14th.” The East Asia Summit opens in Angeles on Nov. 13, but the major events with world leaders occur on Nov. 14.
But the region is sure to read a lot into Trump’s absence, according to experts and former officials. By not attending the East Asia Summit his first year in office, even though he will already be nearby, Trump is signaling a lack of interest in the organization and the project it represents.
“It is a big deal. The Obama administration made a point of investing in these regional institutions in order to demonstrate we are an Asia Pacific power, a resident power in the region. This will only raise more questions about American credibility,” said Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Burma. “Multilateralism in Asia is often just about showing up, but even that appears to be hard for him.”
Multiple administration officials told me there was a lengthy debate inside the Trump administration about the summit, but officials close to Trump were concerned the president did not want to stay in the region for so long and worried he could get cranky, leading to unpredictable or undiplomatic behavior.
President Barack Obama brought the United States into the East Asia Summit after his administration signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in Southeast Asia in 2009. He became the first American president to attend the summit in 2011 and attended each year thereafter except for 2013, when he canceled his trip due to the U.S. government shutdown.
Mitchell said the hosts scheduled the summit close to other regional events, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, specifically to accommodate the U.S. president. Trump will attend APEC meetings in Vietnam on Nov. 10.
“They tend to schedule [the EAS] to make it easier for the United States to attend,” he said. “It’s not necessarily convenient for others. I’m sure it’s frustrating to many of our partners.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may stay in the Philippines for the East Asia Summit, but it’s not the same, said Ernest Bower, senior adviser for Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Tillerson can sit in the president’s seat, but the symbolism of that will be the headline of the day,” he said.
The East Asia Summit is unique because it focuses on greater strategic issues, as opposed to the economic focus of APEC, said Bower. Trump’s absence is part of a pattern of his administration downgrading the importance of multilateral organizations and forums overall.
The East Asia Summit includes the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and South Korea, along with the United States. It’s a missed opportunity for Trump to show all those countries that the United States is still committed to the strengthening regional integration and cooperation as China becomes more aggressive and expansionist, said Bower.
“The rest of Asia needs us to be there,” he said. “Since you’ve flown all that way, I can’t imagine not staying for that last 24 hours just to keep America in the game. It’s shocking.”
Not all Asia experts think Trump skipping the East Asia Summit is such a disaster. After all, Trump will spend 12 days on his Asia trip and visit several countries including Japan, South Korea and China. That should reassure the region of Trump and America’s commitment, said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” he said. “What’s a bigger deal is what comes out of the actual Duterte meeting and other bilaterals, the fact that he’s out there for so long and meeting so many leaders and the content of the policy.”
Big deal or not, it’s an unforced error that will cause concern among allies and celebration by adversaries. Trump should just stay one extra day in the country he’s already going to, to make sure his Asia trip doesn’t end in doubts about whether the United States is really showing up in the region.