Good Message, Wrong Messenger

Vice President Pence’s trip to Asia lays bare competing visions for Southeast Asia and Pacific, but President Trump’s absence is damaging.

From November 11-18, Vice President Pence traveled in place of President Trump to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Singapore, and the annual leaders’ meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Papua New Guinea. The trip was Pence’s third trip to Asia as vice president and the second with a stop in Southeast Asia.

By most measures, Vice President Pence’s visits went well, and he delivered a strong message of U.S. commitment to the region, including some specific announcements, which were well received. However, President Trump’s absence from the Asia regional summits undercut this reassuring message of U.S. commitment and engagement and sent a damaging signal about U.S. interest in the region.

In contrast to the harsh tone of a speech he gave on China in the weeks prior to his trip, Vice President Pence crafted a softer message and announced some tangible initiatives for both Southeast Asia and the South Pacific designed to flesh out the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Southeast Asia had been rather skeptical of the Indo-Pacific strategy put forth by President Trump at last year’s APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, in large part because it remained unclear where ASEAN fit into the new vision. Pence built on earlier statements made by Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo by declaring at each summit meeting that “ASEAN is at the center of our Indo-Pacific strategy.” He articulated a vision of openness, sovereignty and independence, and prosperity for the region while emphasizing U.S. support for individual rights. He also made the administration’s most important statements on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya conducted by Myanmar’s security forces.

Pence also brought along some appealing initiatives designed to signal deeper U.S. economic engagement in key Southeast Asian priorities. In particular, he focused on the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, recently passed by Congress with administration support, that reforms U.S. development finance and will provide new tools and resources to incentivize U.S. business to take part in infrastructure development in the region. The BUILD Act creates a new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC), which will incorporate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and parts of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and doubles OPIC’s existing financing authority from $30 billion to $60 billion. This move resonates in Southeast Asia, where unmet infrastructure needs are very high, and countries are looking for alternatives to financing by China through its Belt and Road initiative. The $60 billion price tag was also significant and much more impressive than the $113 million worth of initiatives announced by Secretary of State Pompeo ahead of the ASEAN meetings last July. Vice President Pence also announced a U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership, a Cybersecurity Technical Assistance Program for ASEAN, and an Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative. Most notable on the security side was the announcement by Vice President Pence that the United States would partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea to modernize the Lombrum Naval Base in Papua New Guinea. This comes at a time when China has been widely reported to be seeking increased security ties and access to Pacific Island nations.

These announcements took place against the backdrop of deterioration in U.S.-China relations and anxiety in some quarters that the United States hopes for countries in the Indo-Pacific region to choose between the United States and China. Noting the sensitivity of this dynamic, at APEC Vice President Pence stated, “We are aware of the concern that U.S.-China competition is felt among many of you…so let me be clear, the United States seeks a better relationship with China [ . . . ]

Vice President Pence’s main focus, however, was to outline a Free and Open Indo-Pacific based on principles with which nearly the whole region can agree, and in many ways stand in stark contrast to recent moves by China. Key to drawing out this contrast has been efforts by the Trump administration to highlight the downside risks of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Vice President Pence carried this theme in his APEC speech, contrasting what he called a “constricting belt or one-way road” with a different vision: “Know that the United States offers a better option. We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly, fairly . . . When you partner with us, we partner with you, and we all prosper.”

Meanwhile, China scored some “own goals” at the APEC meeting, which also helped to draw out some of these contrasts. At a dinner summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and eight Pacific leaders, Chinese officials blocked all non-Chinese media, including local reporters already accredited and invited by Papua New Guinea, from entering the venue. Subsequently at APEC, when leaders reached an impasse over the APEC leaders’ statement, reports emerged that four Chinese officials were unceremoniously removed by security and banished from the Papua New Guinean foreign minister Rimbink Pato’s office after they had barged into the office to lobby the foreign minister on the wording of the statement. Although Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato denied Chinese officials forcibly entered his office, he pointedly said that he had refused to meet with them because, as Chair of the APEC meeting, he “had to remain impartial” – modeling some appealing behavior for Southeast Asian nations serving as ASEAN Chair. In the end, Chinese objections over a single sentence led to the failure, for the first time ever, for APEC leaders to issue a joint statement. The objectionable sentence was: “We agree to fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices,” which the Chinese officials perceived as singling out and targeting China. When the APEC summit ended with the failure to agree on a joint statement, the Chinese delegation stationed in a nearby room stood up and applauded, to the disgust of many other APEC nation officials.

The bullying behavior on display by China at APEC, characterized by one U.S. official as “tantrum diplomacy,” underscores what many in the region are concerned about. China’s approach is viewed by many in the region as increasingly assertive and “win-win” in name only, including its economic statecraft, its diplomatic treatment of smaller countries, and its relentless militarization of the South China Sea. Vice President Pence was right to highlight the contrast between the United States and China. However, the fact that Pence was the messenger rather than the U.S. president contributes to the anxiety in the region that the United States is an unreliable partner with questionable commitment and durability, and it gives China the sense that it can fill a vacuum on its own terms.

While Pence was able to put some meat on the bones of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the region still worries about President Trump’s commitment and instincts, the lack of a multilateral trade agenda or a multilateral diplomatic strategy for Asia, and continued vacancies at embassies around the region and at the State Department. Moreover, there remains a sense in Southeast Asia and the Pacific that countries are being viewed through the prism of U.S.-China strategic rivalry, rather than seen as opportunities in their own right for the mutual benefits that would come with deeper economic and diplomatic ties. Much more needs to be done to reassure the region that the United States is truly committed to being an active and enduring Indo-Pacific partner, starting with the president of the United States being the one to lead the effort to promote the U.S. vision at this strategic moment.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Brian Harding

Brian Harding

Deputy Director and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program

Amy Searight