Lo and behold, the outcome of the informal summit between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was good for Asean – as it exceeded Asean leaders’ expectations.
For the past several months, they were worried and perplexed by Trump’s incessant hostile comments, both before and after he became president, fearing that the rhetoric would translate into actions shaking the diplomatic pillars of the grouping’s most important dialogue partners. This year, Asean is celebrating 50 years of its existence and it hopes to expand its global profile.
Indeed, what emerged from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort will set the tone for Asean’s future engagement with the US and China. Asean leaders are scheduled to meet later this month at their 30th summit in Manila to review external relations with all dialogue partners. Their relations with the two powers will top the agenda.
At the ministerial ‘retreat’ in February at Boracay, Asean foreign ministers asked for a special meeting with US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to discuss the nature of Asean-US relations under the Trump administration. The meeting has now been scheduled for early May in Washington DC. After the Trump-Xi meeting, Asean leaders now have more confidence in dealing with the dialogue partners collectively or separately.
As the Florida summit showed, both bilateral trade challenges and North Korea’s nuclear ambition will dominate the discourse in US-China relations in years to come. Consequently, those factors will also affect overall ties with Asean as a whole. Like China, Asean members share a similar symptom in their trading ties with the US. Recently, the Trump administration signed an executive order to investigate 16 countries as trade cheats, including four Asean countries – Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand – that were said to need to immediately rectify their trading relations with the US, which has suffered from huge trade deficits. The US suffered nearly a US$90-billion (Bt3.1-trillion) trade deficit in respect to the four Asean members. Already, they all have come up with contingency plans to cope with Washington’s growing pressure. Malaysia and Thailand both strongly denied that they engaged in unfair trading and have already pledged to increase investment in the US aiming at creating jobs for American workers.
Trade aside, there is a new twist in efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear development. Since 2006, the US and other concerned countries (Japan, China, Russia and South Korea) have been engaged in plans to quell Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions under the framework of six-party talks. However, the process has not produced the expected results due to North Korea’s increasing intransigence and aggressive nuclear-related ambitions. Trump has stressed that the US will act alone on North Korea if the request to China for help to pressure North Korea fails. While Washington has the capacity to act alone, it would yield disastrous repercussions for the Korean Peninsula and Asian region. At this juncture, all diplomatic efforts must be expended to avoid further tension and prevent unilateral action by Trump. China, the US and Asean have common positions regarding the Korean Peninsula. They have all demanded North Korea comply with various UN resolutions following its five nuclear tests.
That helps explain why Asean is anxious and would like to promote further dialogue between North Korea and its antagonists. The nuclear crisis is no longer exclusively a matter of the six-party talks or negotiations with the US. The Asean Region Forum (ARF), set up in 1995, could be a suitable forum for all concerned to find ways to reduce the threat of war and discuss the next move of confidence-building. Asean has long been interested in engaging North Korea to curb the country’s development of nuclear bombs. Pyongyang joined the ARF in 2000 and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2008. One of the TAC principles is the restraint of military force and an emphasis on pacifist means to settle any dispute. Asean also has a common position backing the current negotiations of a new nuclear weapons ban treaty at the UN. Truth be told, Washington and Tokyo have long been opposed to any Asean effort to engage North Korea under the six-party talks for fear that it would weaken their positions and that of their partners. Seoul and Beijing have become more receptive to an Asean facilitation role. For over a decade, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has featured in the ARF annual agenda. Under the prevailing mood in the Trump administration, Asean could convince the US that the Asean-led ARF could contribute positively to the ongoing scheme to de-nuclearise North Korea in the long-run by encouraging more direct dialogue among all concerned countries. After all, the Asean-initiated dialogue has yet to be tested.
Given its growing international isolation, Asean remains North Korea’s all-weather friend. Half of the 10 members have embassies in Pyongyang. Their relations date back to the 1970s when key Asean members established ties with Pyongyang. During the Cambodian conflict, North Korea strongly backed the group’s efforts to resist foreign occupation and to settle the 13-year conflict. Unfortunately, Asean-North Korea ties were severely damaged after Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of current the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in mid-February. But that crisis could create a new opportunity to engage North Korea.
From the Asean perspective, the difference in diplomatic approaches taken by the US and China has given Asean members extra room to manoeuvre in relations and avoid being pawns in the superpowers’ games. Trump’s extroverted style and distinctive sabre-rattling could be useful as an effective deterrent only in the face of imminent dangers the group may encounter. At the moment, the situation in South China Sea remains calm as conflicting parties are working out bilateral solutions, as well as collectively focusing on security-related issues such as avoiding unintended mishaps at sea. The Trump administration has not yet seen the need to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the troubled maritime zone. After all, the Philippines has not yet set off alarm bells regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea.
On the contrary, the Chinese introverted style, exemplified by Xi’s calm demeanour, fits the Asean diplomatic manner. It is better to work out solutions together discreetly before making grand announcements with or without bargaining strategies. The Philippines handling of China under President Rodrigo Duterte remains a good case study. Other examples could be drawn from China’s bilateral dealings with Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. All said, in the coming days Asean should be more assertive in settling trade issues with the US and at the same time it must also insert itself in the effort to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula, as that directly affects regional security. These two transactional items could propel Asean-US ties to a new height. After all, while most concern is voiced for the US mainland, Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles, both medium-range and intercontinental, could hit every single Asean capital.