Vice President Pence spent the week touring the Asia-Pacific region, meeting with numerous leaders and dignitaries. After swinging through Japan, Pence went to Singapore for the annual confab of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN). That included an awkward meeting with Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during which Pence pressed Suu Kyi on her government’s role in last year’s massacres of Rohingya Muslims and the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who covered them.
Pence now heads to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this weekend in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. He’ll be joined by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other statesmen from around the Pacific Rim.
Conspicuously absent here is Trump. He declined the opportunity to make the trip, a move some analysts saw as a worrying sign for Washington’s Asian agenda. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a first-ever state visit to Singapore this week in a bid to boost Moscow’s clout in the region. Starting in 2011, Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, made a habit of attending ASEAN meetings; he missed only one, in 2013, when Washington was in the middle of a government shutdown.
Trump — who, according to one account, has “retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment” over the Mueller investigation and his party’s midterm election losses — chose to buck the trend. That’s not likely to go down well across the Pacific.
“Every country in Southeast Asia is trying to forge a close relationship with the U.S. — they don’t want to live in a region that’s dominated by China. They want options, and they want balance,” Brian Harding of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said to The Washington Post’s Shibani Mahtani. “It doesn’t send a good signal [of U.S. commitment] that the president doesn’t want to attend the one summit he’s supposed to in Southeast Asia.”
“Optics are very, very important — and statements and symbolisms. Who comes, what’s on the table, what’s on the agenda,” Alex Capri, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, said to CNBC. “If Trump were to come out I think it would have been a much more symbolic that . . . this was more important.”
But perhaps, given Trump’s recent overseas performances, his no-show isn’t such a bad thing. According to my colleagues, Trump was infuriated by French President Emmanuel Macron’s rebuke of his nationalist politics as the two leaders shared a stage in Paris over the weekend. The angry tweets he later aimed at Macron prompted a French government official to accuse the American president of lacking “common decency.”
“He’s just a bull carrying his own china shop with him whenever he travels the world,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said to The Post.
But Pence cuts a more circumspect figure, even while he’s enacting Trump’s agenda.
In Tokyo, he offered standard Washington talking points. “We seek an Indo-Pacific where every nation … is free to follow its own path and pursue its own interests, where the seas and skies are open to all engaged in peaceful activity, and where sovereign nations grow stronger together," Pence said at a news conference. “Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific. And I know this vision is shared by the United States and Japan."
In an interview with The Post’s Josh Rogin, Pence talked tough on China and said that Beijing must significantly change its behavior on multiple fronts. The looming trade war between the world’s two largest economies probably will dominate headlines ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires at the end of this month, when Trump and Xi are expected to meet.
“In addition to trade, Pence said China must offer concessions on several issues, including but not limited to its rampant intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, restricted access to Chinese markets, respect for international rules and norms, efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters and Chinese Communist Party interference in the politics of Western countries,” Rogin noted.
In Port Moresby, Pence is expected to deliver a speech signaling new American efforts to rival China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen Beijing pour billions of dollars into infrastructure projects around the world. It has also led to allegations of graft by local officials and provoked accusations that China is simply a new kind of neocolonial power, locking other developing nations into cycles of debt.
A U.S. official told reporters in Asia that Pence’s plan will be a “private-sector-driven mode” rather than the “dangerous debt diplomacy China has been engaging in the region.”
Many countries in Southeast Asia, accustomed to balancing great-power rivalries, will welcome American efforts. But for all of Pence’s bravado, the Trump administration still has plenty of doubters in the region.
“If Asia matters to America, why is your leader President Trump not here?” Tommy Koh, a senior Singaporean diplomat, asked in the South China Morning Post. He added that Washington’s overzealous confrontation with Beijing would damage its broader engagement with Asia given that China is the biggest trade partner of virtually every country in the region. “Is the strategic intent of this concept targeted at excluding China from the family?” Koh asked. "If so we are not comfortable.”
It’s also unlikely China will make many — or any — of the concessions Pence demanded. An offer Beijing put forward on Thursday to kick-start moribund trade talks looks unlikely to break the current impasse, according to reports.
But things could yet break in the administration’s favor. “Given Mr Trump’s obvious disdain for allies, it is unclear how many would opt for America over China if forced by Washington to make a choice right now,” wrote Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times. “But if he . . . starts working closely with other countries to isolate China, then Mr Xi will be in a lot more trouble.”
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