U.S. turns attention to Southeast Asia
Pence visits Indonesia, says Trump will follow him later in the year
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Southeast Asia has been overlooked thus far by the Trump administration, but Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia on Thursday marked a sign of change, and he announced that the president would follow him to the region later this year.
Anxious Southeast Asian governments are looking for a U.S. commitment to counter China’s rising economic and military clout. Vietnam’s foreign minister is in Washington this week, and the top diplomats of the region’s 10-nation bloc are expected to arrive in early May.
Pence’s stop in Jakarta on a 10-day swing through the Asia-Pacific region, meeting with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, sends a message that Trump’s interests in Asia extend beyond North Korea and the massive U.S. trade imbalance with China.
Pence announced that Trump would attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in November.
Washington is “taking steps to strengthen our partnership with ASEAN and deepen our friendship,” Pence said, resolving to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation in combating terrorism and in the disputed South China Sea.
This year marks ASEAN’s 50th anniversary. November’s summit will be in the Philippines, setting the stage for an encounter between two unconventional leaders: President Donald Trump and the host, Rodrigo Duterte, who is sometimes likened to the U.S. leader because of his outspokenness and populism.
U.S.-Philippine relations are strained over Duterte’s war on drugs and his brash efforts to forge closer ties with China. President Barack Obama scrapped a planned meeting last fall after Duterte cursed him. Before that, Obama engaged Southeast Asia more than any U.S. president since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and made ASEAN summits a fixture in his diplomatic calendar.
Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and abrupt withdrawal from Obama’s proposed pan-Pacific trade pact raised fears of U.S. protectionism hurting the region’s 600 million people. They do $225 billion in trade with the U.S. each year.