Vice President Pence Goes to Asia

Vice President Mike Pence travels to Asia November 11 through 18 to attend a troika of Asia Pacific summits and to hold bilateral talks with allies and partners in Japan, Singapore, and Australia. The vice president will have an opportunity to address questions from Asian partners about U.S. commitment to the region, the content of the administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, and its newly hardened stance towards China.

Q1: Where is Vice President Pence going and why?

A1: President Trump has asked Vice President Pence to travel to Asia next week to attend two annual regional summits in his place. Pence will first stop in Japan November 12-13 for bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Abe that will focus on North Korea and China, while largely steering clear of the bilateral trade issues that are currently a major part of the relationship. He will then head to Singapore November 14-15 to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS), a gathering of the leaders of 18 nations including the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. He will also convene a U.S.-ASEAN summit with his 10 ASEAN counterparts. Pence will then travel to Papua New Guinea November 17-18 to attend the annual leaders’ meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). While there, he will deliver a speech outlining U.S. regional priorities at the annual gathering of CEOs from APEC countries. We can expect that in his speech, Vice President Pence will try to offer a positive, reassuring message to Asian audiences about U.S. commitment to the region, in contrast to the harsh tone of his speech on China at the Hudson Institute in early October, which was tailored for a domestic audience. Although he will be spending two days at the APEC meetings in Papua New Guinea, the vice president will be overnighting in Cairns, Australia.

Q2: What are the key issues for the ASEAN summit and EAS?

A2: As this year’s chair of ASEAN and host of EAS, Singapore has pressed hard for progress on two issues of key importance to ASEAN. The first is progress on a code of conduct (COC) between China and the members of ASEAN to manage the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN has been pushing for a COC with China for over two decades with very little progress. With tensions in the South China Sea growing and concern among ASEAN members rising over China’s militarization of its artificial outposts, finding a way forward on negotiating a COC with China has emerged as a top priority for ASEAN. Momentum in the talks picked up in late 2016 after the Arbitral Tribunal award favoring the Philippines was issued in July that year. In August, Singapore announced that the two sides had agreed to a single draft negotiating text, which is an important procedural step towards concluding a COC. Nevertheless, significant hurdles remain in reaching a final agreement, and negotiations will likely stretch into next year and beyond.

The second focal point for most of the countries at EAS will be progress towards a regional free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RCEP encompasses the 10 ASEAN nations along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—16 of the 18 members of EAS, with only the United States and Russia not participating. Along with the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership, now set to launch on December 30 this year, RCEP would be another step forward for regional trade integration. RCEP negotiations have been ongoing for six years, and progress has been slowed by India’s reluctance to agree to significant market opening as well as other disagreements over the desired level of ambition in tariff reductions and trade rules. To date, only five of 18 chapters on trade rules have been agreed. Singapore has been working diligently to advance the trade negotiations, and political will in the talks has ticked up in the midst of uncertainty over U.S. trade policy and concerns over growing protectionism and a U.S.-China trade war. Singapore and its RCEP partners are racing to reach a “substantial conclusion” during the RCEP summit that will take place next week just before EAS. However serious progress toward concluding an agreement appears unlikely, as India has continued to hold out on making significant concessions before its general election next year.

Discussion at EAS on these issues will take place against the backdrop of growing regional concerns over intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry and questions about U.S. commitment to the region, particularly in terms of economic engagement in an era of Trump’s America First-ism. Southeast Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the United States and China. They welcome U.S. security presence as a balance against growing Chinese assertiveness but talk of a “new Cold War” that emerged after vice president’s speech on China last month made many in the region very nervous. They welcome China’s economic partnership through initiatives like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, even as concerns have risen in Malaysia and elsewhere about the way China uses economic inducements to gain political and strategic advantages over indebted countries. Trade and investment ties with the major economic powers remain a top priority. Presumably, Vice President Pence will seek to reassure countries in the region that the United States remains a committed, enduring partner that will maintain a strong strategic presence while also looking for ways to cooperate on the economic priorities of Southeast Asia.

Q3: What are the key issues at APEC?

A3: Expectations for this year's annual APEC Economic Leaders' meeting are low. By all accounts, tiny Papua New Guinea has done a creditable job of preparing logistically for the summit, but Port Moresby has limited capacity to drive a forceful agenda. The absence of the U.S. president from the event and the Trump administration's lack of enthusiasm for APEC's multilateral mission of trade and investment liberalization and regional economic integration make substantial outcomes unlikely. Meanwhile, China and Russia are reportedly dragging their feet on many agenda items, including the previously agreed decision to announce a work plan toward APEC's goal of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, despite Beijing's having championed this initiative in its host year in 2014.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials handling the APEC summit preparations report that they continue to push for progress on traditional U.S. priorities such as liberalizing regional trade in goods and services, building a free and open digital economy, advancing structural reform, and promoting women's economic empowerment. And APEC leaders will receive a report from APEC's Vision Group on the outlines of a post-2020 agenda for the organization to succeed the current Bogor Goals agreed to in 1994.

Q4: Does it matter that the vice president is going instead of the president?

A4: This will not be the first time that the U.S. president has declined to attend major Asian regional summits. President Clinton twice sent Vice President Gore to the APEC leaders’ meeting in his stead, in Osaka, Japan, in 1995, and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998. After George W. Bush’s perfect APEC attendance record, President Obama sent Secretary of State Kerry to Asia in 2013 to attend the APEC summit in Bali and EAS in Brunei (since the United States had joined EAS in 2011). However, these cases were last minute cancellations by the president in the midst of domestic budget crises (Clinton in 1995, Obama in 2013) or a foreign policy crisis (Clinton during an Iraq crisis in 1998). This year, President Trump announced his decision not to attend the summits months in advance, while facing no imminent crisis.

Some observers have pointed to President Trump’s disruptive impulses at the G7 Summit in Canada last June and recent NATO summits as reasons to prefer the vice president’s participation in the Asian summits this year. It is also true that both EAS and APEC tend to be overly-scripted, long, and somewhat tedious meetings that generally do not produce significant results on the ground. Yet there are some key reasons why we think the president’s absence matters. As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up,” and nowhere is that more true than Southeast Asia. Leaders in Southeast Asia and East Asia more broadly put a lot of stock in personal interactions and the symbolic commitment of showing up. China’s president Xi Jinping will attend APEC in Papua New Guinea, and he will deliver a major speech at the APEC CEO summit as well as hold meetings with several Asian and Pacific leaders, including a large grouping of Pacific Island states. These engagements, including a state visit to the Philippines by President Xi after APEC, will naturally overshadow the presence of Vice President Pence.

The absence of President Trump will also underscore the widely held skepticism in the region about the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy that President Trump unveiled at the APEC meeting in Danang, Vietnam, last November. A year later, the details and underpinning principles of this strategy remain somewhat vague. Although Secretary of State Pompeo announced a few initiatives last August on U.S. government support for private-sector led development on infrastructure and energy, as well as a modest boost in security cooperation assistance, there remains no credible trade component and no signature security or economic initiative that signal serious U.S. commitment. With President Trump not showing up this year, Asians will be listening carefully to hear if the vice president provides more detail and more compelling reasons why Asians should take this strategy seriously.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew P. Goodman is senior vice president, senior adviser for Asian economics, and holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at CSIS. William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS.

Critical Questions 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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Amy Searight