For Asean leaders, US President Donald Trump’s decision to skip their annual summit is a surprising gift. Trump will not attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Port Moresby this weekend either.
Trump gave no specific reason for his absence, but perhaps Singapore no longer interests him; he was there in June for a historic bilateral summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
US Vice President Mike Pence will turn up on Trump’s behalf. Hopefully he has received an adequate mandate from his boss and can convince Trump to support whatever decision he makes during the Singapore trip.
The regional grouping is strongly advised to break into huge applause when Pence conveys Trump’s apology for shunning the annual meeting. It will come as no surprise if the leaders shout “hooray”. Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Brunei’s Sultan Bolkiah may even respond with “Alhamdulillah” (Thank God).
Traditionally, the presence of a US president is perceived as instrumental to the success of an Asean gathering and the prestige of the host. But the US military hegemony and the country’s economic might are waning.
Trump’s unpredictable behaviour and outspokenness are sometimes disturbing and can even annoy his host and other guests. French President Emmanuel Macron had to endure such pain during the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I in Paris last week.
The leaders of the 10-member Asean may become random victims of Trump’s anger over the defeat of the Republicans in the race for congressional seats in the recent midterm elections. Trump may also feel irritated at the thought of meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Singapore. The US leader has failed to prove his claim that China would quickly bow to his economic threats.
Jokowi is very enthusiastic about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes all Asean members, plus China, Japan, Australia, India and New Zealand. The RCEP is touted as an alternative free-trade agreement after Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have isolated China.
During the Paris event, Trump criticised Macron for proposing the establishment of stronger European military power to reduce dependence on the US. Trump described the plan as “insulting”.
By skipping the Singapore gathering, Trump also avoids any awkward group photo of summit leaders with the cross-body handshake that has become the trademark of Asean gatherings. Trump reportedly complained about the photo session at last year’s summit in Manila, where he needed two attempts to get the handshake right.
Trump is well known for his distaste for multilateral meetings, and preferring bilateral ones. He does not believe in multilateralism, while Asean and its dialogue partners are promoting multilateral cooperation.
With or without Trump, however, Asean leaders remain preoccupied with their regional headaches, in particular the continuing atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, which the United Nations has described as genocidal. As the chair of Asean, Singapore has warned that the “man-made humanitarian disaster” could morph into a serious security threat for the region if not addressed.
“We expressed our grave concern with these alleged acts of violence ... This is a man-made humanitarian disaster and something which should not be happening in this day and age,” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said of the results of an informal meeting of Asean foreign ministers on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly in New York.
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to brief her colleagues about the latest developments in her country. Ninety-four-year-old Mahathir has openly said he has lost faith in Suu Kyi, while Jokowi is slowly losing patience, because the ordeal of the Rohingya is a cause for concern in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Knowing Trump’s hostility towards Islam, it won’t be easy for Asean to persuade him to support the regional grouping’s pressure on Myanmar. There is even a possibility that Trump might defend Myanmar’s military oppression of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Asean leaders will have their own meeting and then host the Asean Plus Three Summit and the 13th East Asia Summit. Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong will not only meet with Asean leaders but also with world leaders including China’s Li, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Indian PM Narendra Modi.
At the closing ceremony tomorrow, Lee will hand over the Asean chairmanship to Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha. Asean will not have the guts to say “no” to the Thai general, even though they know a dictator should not be given such an honour.
Nevertheless, Asean should be grateful for Trump’s decision to skip the Singapore summit. It is a good move for both the US president and Asean. His absence was the gift Asean wanted from Trump. Mr President, please don’t disturb!