Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill gives a speech at a press conference after the 26th APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in Port Moresby, his nation's capital, on November 18 (XINHUA)
With U.S. President Donald Trump absent, Vice President Mike Pence substituted for him at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and the East Asia Summit hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore. Trump's decision raised legitimate questions about U.S. commitments and reliability in the region. Why did Trump choose to skip the meetings? And what did this say about his attitude and policy toward both the meetings and the region in general?
Simply stated, Trump made a big mistake skipping the meetings, giving the impression that the United States cares less about the Pacific Rim region, and, in particular, nations such as Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, and the Cook Islands than China, Japan and Australia.
Combine this snub with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and its ongoing trade war with China, and it becomes even more apparent that Asia-Pacific is far from the vital region the United States and Trump claim it to be. Trump's attendance would have underscored U.S. commitment to the region. It could have also provided an opportunity for Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet before the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Instead, Trump's unwillingness to attend meetings, shape the agenda, shore up U.S. alliances and deepen U.S. ties in the region prevailed. Trump is well known for his reluctance to attend multilateral meetings and instead prefers bilateral gatherings such as his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He does not believe in multilateralism, while APEC's goal is to promote mutual trade and cooperation.
Trump, who attended the gatherings last year but departed early, sent Pence instead. This did little to deter skepticism that Trump's "America First" policy is of greater importance to him and his administration than engaging in the spirit of APEC's work and enhancing cooperation and trade to engender inclusive growth. It is unlikely to occur to Trump that APEC member economies account for almost half of the world's trade.
Personal interactions and the symbolic commitment of attending such events are important to both the leaders and populations of the Asia-Pacific region. If the United States was really concerned about maintaining its relevance on a global stage, Trump should have been in attendance, engaging with his counterparts and illustrating the U.S. commitment to the region in a speech to the delegation. By contrast, Xi not only attended the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, but he also delivered a key speech at the APEC CEO Summit and held meetings with several Asian and Pacific leaders, including eight Pacific Island states. His appearance undoubtedly overshadowed Pence's presence. Pence pointedly skipped Xi's APEC speech and restated Trump's hardline stance that the United States would keep tariffs on China until it addresses concerns outlined by his administration.
This year, the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting ended without a communiqué for the first time in history. The primary area of contention was the insistence by one country—likely the United States—that the outcome document should reflect its own stance on the reform of the World Trade Organization. The fact that they could not find an agreement is emblematic of the impact of Trump's protectionist policies and his role in breaking down international institutions.
What does this mean for Asia-Pacific and U.S. interests in the region? The answer is unknown, due in large part to Pence's over-the-top rhetoric in his APEC speech and Trump's reputation for being both mercurial and unpredictable. Assuming that Pence was on-point and enunciating Trump's "America First" stance that emphasizes U.S. hegemony, unilateralism, and anti-globalization protectionism, then the answer becomes quite clear: The United States wants Asia-Pacific nations to choose between the United States and China.
The rhetoric from the United States demonstrated a level of disrespect toward the region's nations that have chosen to facilitate strong economic ties with China out of their own national interest. For Pence, to try and project interest in Chinese investments for economic development into Cold War-style opposition is ham-fisted, patronizing, and embarrassing. Simply put, Pence blundered.
Media workers install satellite ground stations before the 26th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on November 13 (XINHUA)
The Chinese vision
In light of Trump's non-appearance and disinterest in diplomacy and foreign relations in general, as well as in APEC and ASEAN, the meeting between Xi and Trump during the forthcoming G20 Summit now carries much more weight. But will that meeting be any different from Pence's appearance at APEC? While we can hope that Trump will arrive prepared to work together, mute his bombast that trade wars are easy to win, and promote collaboration between the world's largest two economies, the reality is that his personality, his trade war against China and his aggressive rhetoric do not bode well for success. Hope is minimal even with China's demonstration of patience on the trade dispute and willingness to work with the United States to arrive at a broad consensus.
Trump's personal disinterest and his foreign policy team's hands-off approach toward Asia-Pacific relations have served to diminish confidence in U.S. resolve among its non-allied partners in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia. Trump has severely weakened U.S. influence in the world without getting anything of value in exchange. This decline has the potential to be permanent. It may take decades for the United States to recover from Trump's deliberate diminishment. In retrospect, it may be seen as one of the worst legacies of Trump's presidency.
The APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting offered the world contrasting views of multilateral cooperation and economic globalization, of "America First" vs. China's win-win cooperation. Xi's speech at the meeting was dramatic. Pence's speech was reactionary. Xi's speech captured the spirit of the moment that the world is changing and that we have reached a crossroads. Pence's speech underscored U.S. determination to go it alone and erect barriers to economic cooperation and global governance. Xi noted that in an era of globalization, using manmade barriers to obstruct close ties between countries runs against economic logic and historical trends. Pence reiterated that "in the days ahead, the United States will continue to put America first," which means that the White House will not only do so in terms of concrete benefits, such as economic and trade deals, but also in defining the rules and principles.
Trump's "America First" nationalism, his contempt for multilateral alliances, and his "Art of the Deal" policy approach pushed by his vice president at the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting were a stark contrast to Xi's vision for China as a champion of free trade, multilateral cooperation and economic globalization, particularly among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. approach is not the way to build a winning ideological and geopolitical strategy. Trump and his administration were intent on drawing some sort of line in Papua New Guinea by deliberately picking a fight with China. But the United States' incoherent efforts via Pence to disregard China's efforts at providing economic and infrastructure development to lesser developed nations did not come across as an effective way to wage soft diplomacy. The strategy is doomed to fail.
The author is a professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston
Copyedited by Craig Crowther
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