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Mar 05, 2020 / 10:59

Summit cancellation a major blow to US relations with ASEAN: Thayer

The cancellation of the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Special Meeting will undermine Vietnam’s role as ASEAN Chair, according to Prof. Thayer.

The recent cancellation of the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Special Meeting to commemorate the ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership is a major blow to US relations with ASEAN, Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales.

 President Trump at the ASEAN-US Summit in Manila, the Philippines on November 13, 2017.

The United States last weekend decided to postpone a meeting with leaders of Southeast Asian countries it had planned to host in Las Vegas on March 14 due to worries about the coronavirus outbreak, Reuters reported. US President Donald Trump had invited ASEAN leaders to meet in the US after he did not attend a summit with the group in Bangkok in November 2019.

The US embassy in Hanoi did not reply to a request for comment at the time of writing.

“Not only has President Trump absented himself from two high-level meetings with ASEAN leaders, but it is unlikely that another summit can be held in 2020. This is mainly due to domestic campaigning for the November 3 presidential elections that will start in mid-year after the Democratic and Republican parties hold their national conventions and nominate their candidates for president,” Prof. Thayer told Hanoitimes in an emailed interview.

It was clear prior to the formal cancellation of the Special Meeting that Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte would not attend. The political crisis that erupted in Malaysia put a big question mark over the attendance of its prime minister. Other sources report that Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi declined to attend, according to Thayer, an expert on Vietnam and ASEAN.

ASEAN is scheduled to hold the ASEAN and related summits, as well as the East Asia Summit (EAS), on November 11-15. If Trump wins it seems unlikely he would attend these meetings because he will have to form his new Cabinet and prepare for inauguration. If Trump loses, the new US president will not take office until January 2021, Thayer said.

He commented that the cancellation of the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Special Meeting will undermine Vietnam’s role as ASEAN Chair. It will be most difficult for the ASEAN Chair to balance relations between China and the United States if the US declines to participate at head of government level.

“President Trump has demonstrated that he is not personally committed to ASEAN as an important multilateral organization in the Indo-Pacific in contrast to official US reaffirmations of support for ASEAN centrality and the EAS’ role as a leaders-led forum,” added Thayer.

Some observers, citing last year’s awkward diplomacy and the Trump administration’s general diplomatic retrenchment, have declared the end of decades-long US hegemony in Southeast Asia, with China the new dominant power. But the United States, due to extant pro-American sentiment in the region – and rising skepticism of China – still clearly retains pole position in the race to “win over” Southeast Asia. If Washington is to do so, however, its need to step up, reform, and redefine American strategy, Charles Dunst and Hunter Marston wrote for The Diplomat.

US President Barack Obama and leaders of ASEAN nations gathered in Sunnylands, California, on February 15-16, 2016, for a Special Leaders Summit. That was the first ever Special ASEAN – U.S. Leaders Summit held in the United States and the very first Summit following the establishment of the ASEAN Community.