Yet Mr. Trump sent a dangerous message of neglect by failing to attend the recently completed summit of ASEAN, the 10-member Southeast Asian regional organization, in Bangkok, and sending no one higher-ranking than national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Other non-ASEAN nations such as Japan, New Zealand and India sent their prime ministers — and China sent its premier. The latter nation made its impact felt throughout the conference, advancing a free-trade agreement between Beijing and the ASEAN states and imposing its version of history on the final draft of a communique about tensions in the South China Sea. Instead of pinning most blame for the conflicting territorial claims there on Beijing, which has aggressively deployed its navy and built artificial islands capable of military use, the document alluded blandly to “concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” China was able to walk away touting a neutral “code of conduct” for the waters rather than required restraint on its part.
One should not, perhaps, overstate the short-run impact of these developments. The Chinese-led regional free-trade deal builds on already-existing bilateral ones between China and various countries. A decision by India to join would have been a breakthrough, but New Delhi refused. Still, it is sobering to see how countries that would have been included in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership — scrapped by Mr. Trump — continue to reposition themselves to trade with China and accommodate its rise. This includes even long-standing friends such as Australia. As for the South China Sea, countries with a stake in the body of water, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, are bound to view the low-level U.S. delegation as more instructive than the high-pitched warning Mr. O’Brien issued about access to the petroleum resources at stake. Vietnam, Thailand and Laos sent their leaders to a meeting led by Mr. O’Brien on Monday; everyone else pointedly sent lower-ranking officials. It has been said that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. If the same goes for Asian geopolitics, then the current administration might be setting the United States up for failure.