Reboot of US-China ties is good for ASEAN

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation/ANN

BANGKOK — Lo and behold, the outcome of the informal summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was good for ASEAN — as it exceeded ASEAN leaders’ expectations. For the past several months, they were worried and perplexed by Trump’s incessant hostile comments, both before and after he became president, fearing that the rhetoric would translate into actions shaking the diplomatic pillars of the grouping’s most important dialogue partners. This year, ASEAN is celebrating 50 years of its existence and it hopes to expand its global profile. Indeed, what emerged from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort will set the tone for ASEAN’s future engagement with the U.S. and China. ASEAN leaders are scheduled to meet later this month at their 30th summit in Manila to review external relations with all dialogue partners. Their relations with the two powers will top the agenda.

At the ministerial retreat in February at Boracay, ASEAN foreign ministers asked for a special meeting with U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson to discuss the nature of ASEAN-U.S. relations under the Trump administration. The meeting has now been scheduled for early May in Washington. After the Trump-Xi meeting, ASEAN leaders now have more confidence in dealing with the dialogue partners collectively or separately. As the Florida summit showed, both bilateral trade challenges and North Korea’s nuclear ambition will dominate the discourse in U.S.-China relations in years to come. Consequently, those factors will also affect overall ties with ASEAN as a whole. Like China, ASEAN members share a similar symptom in their trading ties with the U.S. Recently, the Trump administration signed an executive order to investigate 16 countries as trade cheats, including four ASEAN countries — Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand — that were said to need to immediately rectify their trading relations with the U.S., which has suffered from huge trade deficits. The U.S. suffered nearly a US$90-billion trade deficit in respect to the four ASEAN members. Already, they all have come up with contingency plans to cope with Washington’s growing pressure. Malaysia and Thailand both strongly denied that they engaged in unfair trading and have already pledged to increase investment in the U.S. aimed at creating jobs for American workers. Trade aside, there is a new twist in efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear development. Since 2006, the U.S. and other concerned countries (Japan, China, Russia and South Korea) have been engaged in plans to quell Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions under the framework of six-party talks. However, the process has not produced the expected results due to North Korea’s increasing intransigence and aggressive nuclear-related ambitions.