U.S. President Donald Trump's ongoing trip to key Asian countries this month can help clarify his policies and reassure countries in the region concerned both about changes in Washington and China's growing power, experts on Southeast Asia said.
At the same time, Trump's silence on human rights problems ranging from China's treatment of dissidents to the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar make it important for other leaders to raise these issues at two annual Asia-Pacific summits, a rights expert said.
Trump and other world leaders are attending a series of summits in Asia on Nov. 10-14, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, which culminates with an economic leaders meeting. He will also attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.
The president's visit to Southeast Asia "will highlight the strength and the importance of the relationship and many of the issues that confront the region -- everything from hoping for increased trade with the United States [to] economic development, but also issues in democracy and human rights which are also very important and something that we care deeply about," said Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the 20-member Congressional Caucus on ASEAN.
The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) is a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among its 10 members - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Castro spoke briefly on Wednesday at an event on Capitol Hill where a panel of experts discussed U.S.-ASEAN relations in security, defense, trade, and human rights on the eve of Trump's visit.
Trump's 12-day trip to Asia, which began on Nov. 5, is taking him to five Asian nations -- Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
In Japan and South Korea, Trump called on leaders to increase pressure on North Korea, and the threat that the nation's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program poses, with tougher sanctions and tighter military cooperation.
Though Trump praised China for taking some measures against the rogue nation, he also pressed Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea by scaling back its dealings with Pyongyang and sending back North Korean workers.
The threat posed by North Korea will dominate Trump's meetings with ASEAN members during the various summits as well, experts said.
"The entire Asia region, as you all know, is being overwhelmed with the question of what becomes of what has essentially been the stare down between the United States and North Korea," Castro said. "So we will need to marshal the support of all nations, not only in Asia, but [also] around the world to tackle that problem, and that's another topic of discussion that will come up between President Trump and the leaders of the ASEAN nations."
Security and defense policy
As for security and defense policy, ASEAN nations will be looking for the president to define what the U.S.'s role in the region will be, said David Shear, senior advisor for Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia at McLarty and Associates.
"Asians are gripped by uncertainty right now," he said.
"They are gripped by uncertainty flowing from China's rise and the increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy in the region; they are uncertain because of North Korea, of course, [but] they are also uncertain because they don't know what America's role in the region in the future is going to be," he said. "And they will be looking to the president to answer that question."
Trump will press ASEAN leaders to strengthen their implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and trade restriction on North Korea, Shear said.
"Southeast Asia remains a weak link in our effort to pressure North Korea, and the president will be doing everything he can to strengthen that link," he said.
China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea, where it has claimed disputed territory and built military infrastructure, will be another topic that Trump will address at the APEC summit as part of a wider defining of American policy in the Indo-Pacific region, Shear said.
Trump's nine-month-old administration has not yet outlined a full Asia policy, he said, adding that the U.S.'s position in the region has suffered as a result.
"The Southeast Asians will be looking for us to better define our approach to the South China Sea and to the region in general," said Shear, a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2016 and a former diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.
Though the Indo-Pacific concept is not new, Shear said the administration adopted it to demonstrate the importance the U.S. places on relations between the western Pacific and South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean.
"There's a strong strategic link between the two -- a strong link between what we do with our allies and partners in the Pacific and what we would like to do with Indians in the Indian Ocean," he said.
A third topic that Trump will touch on with ASEAN leaders is counterterrorism, especially when he meets with president Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, where the U.S. military has provided advice to the country on freeing the southern city of Marawi from ISIS attackers, he said.
Trump will also spend time at the summits in Southeast Asia discussing U.S. commercial relations in the region.
Two-way trade between the U.S. and ASEAN generates more than U.S. $200 billion a year, and the market for American exports of goods and services to the region is in excess of U.S. $100 billion annually.
"These are very commercially significant opportunities for U.S. businesses," said Marc Mealy, vice president of policy for the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, a U.S.-based regional trade association.
Mealy said that Southeast Asia's young population, rising level of rural-to-urban migration, and growing market for U.S. services are current draws for American businesses.
"People sometimes ask me why American companies are really active in Southeast Asia, and the simple reason is that that is where the growth in the world is taking place," he said.
"For U.S. companies, ASEAN is an important market," he said. "It's probably one of the most globally competitive sets of markets."
In January, the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- the largest regional trade pact in history -- and declared an end to the U.S. pursuit of multilateral trade pacts, instead opting for bilateral agreements with allied nations.
Twelve Pacific Rim countries -- the U.S., Vietnam, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru -- signed the TPP in February 2016 after seven years of negotiations, agreeing to lower tariffs and to the establishment of a dispute settlement mechanism for trade.
"Having pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the region cries for a systematic American approach to economics and trade in the region," Shear said.
ASEAN countries are now moving ahead on the TPP without the United States and are negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) -- a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN members and six states with which the regional group has existing trade accords, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
Experts said these trade deals will have broader implications for the U.S.-ASEAN trade relations.
The meetings in Southeast Asia will be an opportunity for Trump to gain a broader understanding of the trade-related issues and dynamics in the region, said Barbara Weisel, a managing director of international economic policy firm Rock Creek Global Advisors.
She said there seems to be some urgency for ASEAN nations to move ahead on the TPP and RCEP following the U.S. pullout from TPP "because countries realize that it's important for them to demonstrate that they still value trade liberalization and the benefits that it has brought to their countries in terms of economic development."
"The administration keeps talking about bilateral agreements, and I think there will be some elaboration of this approach in the statements that the president will make, but certainly not a reconsideration of the withdrawal from TPP," said Weisel, who was the lead U.S. negotiator on the trade deal.
"It remains to be seen how the countries in the region will respond to the overtures that the U.S. makes on bilateral agreements," she said.
On Friday, the U.S. president said in a speech in Danang that the U.S. was ready to make bilateral trade deals with any country in the Indo-Pacific region based on "mutual respect and mutual benefit" and will not tolerate trade abuses.
As the U.S. builds a framework for trade and investment policy in Southeast Asia, it also will seek to establish a set of rules by which all nations are expected to play and push for their enforcement, Weisel said.
"ASEAN countries generally don't like to take strong action against one another, so they are looking for help from us for ways to consider what action can be taken," she said. "Any decisions will occur in multilateral and bilateral negotiations. We need to find like-minded countries to work with us on this."
Weisel also said the U.S will need to spend more time working with ASEAN trading partners on issues not covered by global trading system or by rules that already exist, especially with China as the largest trading partner of all countries in the region.
"The China model has growing appeal to the region, especially with the perception that the U.S. has pulled back from the region," she said.
"And that it has a model in the absence of an alternative is attractive," she said. "What this means is that the U.S. needs a more comprehensive strategy" that calls for collaborating more closely with ASEAN nations about trade concerns and challenges.
"We won't succeed on our own by imposing rules unilaterally," she said.
Human rights a no-go
The Trump administration has said it will not broach the issue of human rights with authoritarian leaders in Asia during the president's trip, despite what John Sifton, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), calls an "unprecedented level of human right violations in Southeast Asia this year."
Trump's national security advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters at a daily White House briefing on Nov. 2 that it did not help to "yell about these problems."
"What the President is doing is being effective," he said at the time.
Among the major violations in the region are the crisis in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state where a military crackdown has forced more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's silencing his political opposition in the run-up to national elections in 2018; and the war on drugs in the Philippines in which Duterte has encouraged the killing of drug dealers and addicts.
Sifton said the summits offer an opportunity for other government leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to venture where the U.S. won't tread and to address these matters.
"These [summits] are opportunities for these leaders to raise human rights issues with the hosts and with other participants and try to solve some of the problems," he said.
Sifton also noted that the APEC Summit is being hosted by Vietnam, which has more than 100 political prisoners, including those convicted of spreading propaganda against the state or criticizing the government.
"What we're asking is that visiting government officials who care about human rights raise these cases with the Vietnamese authorities and tell them to stop arresting and prosecuting government critics and ask them why it is a crime in Vietnam to criticize the government," he said.
On Thursday, HRW issued a call for world leaders at the meetings in Southeast Asia to address Myanmar's Rohingya crisis and the deteriorating human rights situations in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The evidence of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya in northern Rakhine is "unimpeachable," Sifton said, noting that the country's powerful armed forces as well as its civilian government are in a state of denial about the crimes against humanity committed there.
The solution is for independent observers to be allowed into the area to find out what happened, he said, though the Myanmar government has so far refused to let in a U.N.-appointed investigative commission.
"That is the one call we are pressing governments to unite on both in Danang and in Manila," he said.
"HRW believes in using relationships to incentivize governments to change their behavior" on human rights issues, Sifton said, whether these are economic agreements or deals to sell weapons or to provide military training.
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