Suspense as Trump non-committal about planned visits to Vietnam, Philippines

The lack of unequivocal confirmation from U.S. President Donald Trump about whether he will attend two major regional summits this November in Vietnam and the Philippines has yet again raised questions over Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia.

“It would be devastating to U.S. regional leadership to skip both APEC and EAS after promising to attend,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Twitter. He was referring to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.

“That would confirm Southeast Asia’s fears about this White House,” Poling added.

Vice President Mike Pence announced in April during a visit to Jakarta that Trump would attend the summits in Vietnam and the Philippines. But just last week, Trump appeared unambivalent about both visits.

“We’ll probably all be going over (to Asia) in a group in November. And we’ll be doing Japan, South Korea, possibly Vietnam with the conference,” Trump was quoted by Reuters as saying last Thursday. When asked about the East Asia summit in the Philippines, Trump acknowledged he had been invited, but said: “We’re going to see.”

It is always difficult to pin down the message of the U.S. president, but analysts do not rule out the possibility of a last-minute change.

“I don’t know if Trump intended to say what he said precisely or if it was just the wording or turn of phrase he used,” Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said of Trump’s latest statement on his upcoming Asia visits.

“I know his advance team is still expected in Vietnam in early October and U.S. officials working in Vietnam have not been informed that he may not come,” Hiebert said. “Trump and senior U.S. officials have said frequently that the president will come to APEC, although, of course, some contingencies back in the U.S. could make it difficult for Trump to come.”

Analysts say if he does cancel the two regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, his administration will be another step closer to retreating from a region that China is salivating over marching on with its expansionism stratagem.

By immediately pulling the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mammoth U.S.-led trade deal whose 12 members make up nearly 40 percent of global GDP after taking office, Trump has undone the signature policy of his predecessor Obama, who received a boisterous rock-star welcome during his three-day visit to Vietnam last year.

“Southeast Asian countries have wondered about the U.S. commitment to the region in the wake of Trump’s election and some of the administration’s early moves,” Hiebert said.

“For the president to skip APEC as well as the EAS in the Philippines would not help boost the U.S. standing in the region, particularly at a time when China is increasing its multi-faceted engagement with its neighbors.”

A March survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore that polled government officials, business representatives, academics, and journalists in Southeast Asia found that around 75 percent of the respondents saw China, not the U.S., as the most influential player now and for the next decade. Two-thirds of respondents also viewed the U.S. less favorably.

According to a June survey from the Pew Research Center, the image of the U.S. under the Trump administration has deteriorated sharply almost everywhere apart from Vietnam and Russia. The falls were far steeper in some of America’s closest allies, including U.S. neighbors Mexico and Canada, and European partners like Germany and Spain.

“The drop in favorability ratings for the United States is widespread,” the Pew report said. “Favorability ratings have only increased in Russia and Vietnam.” In Vietnam in, 84 percent of the respondents said they now have a very or somewhat favorable view of the U.S., up from 76 percent in 2014.

Last May, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc paid an official visit to the White House, beginning a series of Washington visits by Southeast Asian leaders who were seeking to gauge Trump’s policies toward the flashpoint South China Sea, tensions over which have pitted Beijing against its smaller neighbors in the region.

“Vietnamese and Asian leaders in general, get Trump. He’s transactional, nothing more, nothing less,” Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in Washington, said.

“I imagine that Southeast Asian leaders see the overall warm reception as a good sign. I have my personal doubts,” Abuza said. “They should still have grave concerns about his longevity or commitment to the region.”



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