As world leaders convene in Singapore and Papua New Guinea this week for the region’s two most important summits, President Donald Trump has chosen to stay home, sending Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton in his stead.
> It is summit season in Asia, with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings due to start Tuesday in Singapore. The 10-member bloc hosts world leaders at the yearly East Asia Summit, a chance for regional leaders to strengthen ties with global powers. Most will then travel to Papua New Guinea for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, hosted this year by the poorest member of a 21-country bloc of Pacific economies.
> Russian President Vladimir Putin will be visiting Singapore for the first time, meeting leaders in a region that is increasingly looking to Moscow for arms purchases and diplomatic protection. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in Port Moresby for the APEC summit over the weekend, underscoring Beijing’s strategic play in the South Pacific, and will be deploying Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Singapore to expand a free-trade agreement with the city-state and “upgrade its relationship” with Southeast Asian countries.
> Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea will also be at the regional summits.
But Trump will not make an appearance for any of the meetings this week, even as the United States is vying against China for influence in the region.
> Analysts view Trump’s absence as a lost opportunity and miscalculation at a time when Washington and Beijing are locked in a battle for influence over a region that is China’s backyard.
> The U.S. president’s decision not to show up is a “major problem with really bad optics,” said Brian Harding, deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
> “Every country in Southeast Asia is trying to forge a close relationship with the U.S. — they don’t want to live in a region that’s dominated by China. They want options, and they want balance,” he said. “It doesn’t send a good signal [of U.S. commitment] that the president doesn’t want to attend the one summit he’s supposed to in Southeast Asia.”