In Vietnam, Trump to sell new Asia policy at regional summit. But will anyone buy?

By Dien Luong   November 10, 2017 | 11:21 am GMT+7
In Vietnam, Trump to sell new Asia policy at regional summit. But will anyone buy?
U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One before flying to Vietnam to attend the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, at Beijing airport on November 10, 2017. Photo by AFP/Jim Watson

Political rhetoric only will not be enough to reassure a region increasingly anxious about U.S. commitment, analysts say.

President Donald Trump is expected to bill a new policy for Asia during his two-day stay in Vietnam this week, but the U.S. administration needs to follow through with concrete actions to restore waning confidence in a region weary of his erratic diplomacy.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) this week in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang and his state visit later on in Hanoi, Trump will promote the concept of a “free and open Indo-pacific region”. Japan first floated this idea, tailored to push the U.S. to coalesce three other maritime democracies — Japan, Australia, and India. According to American officials, this sales pitch is aimed at demonstrating America and the Trump administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

But political rhetoric only will not be enough to reassure a region increasingly anxious about U.S. commitment, analysts say.

A survey in March by the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore that polled government officials, business representatives, academics and journalists in Southeast Asia found that around 75 percent of the respondents saw China, not the U.S., as the most influential player now and in the next decade. Two-thirds of respondents also viewed the U.S. less favorably than four months ago, according to the survey.

“Some of Trump's statements and actions since he came to power have undermined the U.S. strategic position in the region, but most regional countries would like to see Washington's continued engagement with the region,” Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute, said.

"As such, his concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is likely to be welcomed by most regional countries,” Hiep said. “But again, at this stage, it is just a policy concept. Washington needs to follow up with concrete actions aimed at maintaining and strengthening economic and strategic engagement with the region to restore its strategic position in this part of the world.”

His attendance at the APEC Summit is part of his 13-day five-nation Asia tour, the longest tour of Asia by any U.S. president since George Bush in late 1991. Trump had planned to skip the East Asia Summit, a key gathering of Southeast Asian leaders in the Philippines on November 13. He only made a last-minute change to attend apparently at the request of other leaders.

“It is still not too late for the U.S.," Dennis C. McCornac, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, said, "to come to its senses and understand that this so-called 'American first' policy is really a disguised form of isolation – a policy that will and has never really worked for any country.”