For the past three days, Asia-Pacific leaders have descended on Bangkok for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summit. The talks have centered on hammering out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was intended to create a new trade bloc representing up to half the planet’s population and more than $3 out of every $10 in the global economy. India got cold feet and backed out of the deal, but the RCEP is still on track to be signed next year.
But before the ink comes the diplomatic wrangling. Exemptions get carved out. Side deals get cut. Arms get twisted.
To twist arms, you have to be in the room. That’s why a string of world leaders and number two’s came in person to Bangkok: India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and, notably, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Trump wasn’t there. Neither were Vice President Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose presence might have signaled that the United States was at least prepared to bring its influence to bear.
ASEAN took note when the administration announced that Trump would send his new national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, in the job for just 43 days. He’s still somewhat of an unknown commodity in Washington, so you can imagine he’s not exactly a household name in Bangkok. Accompanying him was comically out-of-touch billionaire and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, that walking conflict of interest who more often than not makes headlines by dozing off in meetings. The diplomatic dream team, this was not.
That third-string American delegation was seen as an indication that the United States sees the ASEAN summit as a third-tier priority. It was an insult. In a region where “saving face” matters as much culturally as politically, this was a massive unforced error.
So, to return the favor, most countries snubbed the United States right back. All 10 heads of state or government attending the summit were invited to meet with O’Brien. Just three showed up: Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. And even they privately grumbled about the American affront.
Such sourness toward Washington surely tastes sweet in Beijing. “Trump’s absence plays right into China’s hands,” Sean Boonpracong, a former member of the Thai National Security Council, told me. “Staying away from this conference is a mistake, a huge insult” to America’s Asian allies, who are looking for cues from the United States as they flirt with ever-closer relations with China.
For countries such as Thailand, who have long-standing security ties with the United States, the cues they are getting are not reassuring. “It calls into question Trump’s level of commitment,” former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told me. But worse than that, Abhisit said, is the fact that there’s a level of unpredictability with Trump that makes it difficult to feel confident in the U.S. alliance. “There has only been consistency in the inconsistencies,” he explained. Even American allies such as Thailand who want to maintain close ties to the United States are being forced to hedge their bets.
Perhaps realizing the blunder, the White House has now tried to clean up some of the damage by inviting Asian partners to attend an unspecified summit in Washington next year.
But will that be enough? For the past three days, China’s delegation has tirelessly been working to position itself as the player in Asia, a region that is sure to become the geopolitical battleground for global dominance between the United States and China for the rest of the century. In those same three days, Trump tweeted 96 times, including several promos for Fox News and a call to vote for Sean Spicer on “Dancing With the Stars,” but nothing about the ASEAN summit.
“Trump is just focused on his own thing,” Abhisit said. “Meanwhile, China’s engagement has increased tremendously over recent years.”
While Americans focus on the endless stream of scandals spewing out of the White House and Trump focuses on himself, the Chinese are playing the long game. And they are winning.