China’s 19th Communist Party Congress wrapped up in Beijing recently with the decision to weave President Xi Jinping’s name into the party’s constitution alongside Mao Zedong. Soon after, U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Xi and then told a reporter, “Now some people may call him the king of China.” In between these moments, the White House confirmed that Trump would skip the annual East Asia Summit, a gathering of 18 Asia-Pacific leaders, to shave a day off of his upcoming, marathon first trip to Asia as president. This must seem like a terrific coronation gift for the new “king,” whose country will now be the dominant world power at the summit.
It should not be this way. The gathering comes at the very end of a long trip to Asia that features a robust agenda, designed to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to the region. The summit remains the only opportunity for the president of the United States to sit down and collectively engage his Asia-Pacific counterparts on the main political and security issues of the day. Former President Barack Obama missed it once — because the Republican Congress shut down the entire United States government. Trump will actually be in the Philippines, where the summit is being held, as it gets underway. Departing as it begins can only be viewed as a snub and will undermine whatever else the president may have achieved in the previous 11 days.
Here’s why the summit matters and the president and White House staff should reconsider his attendance.
The first rule of medicine is “do no harm.” For international politics in Asia, it’s “just show up.” For Asian partners, the most important signal of U.S. commitment is active engagement in regional meetings and collective activities. Checking the box on East Asia Summit attendance would bring goodwill and stave off questions about the lack of a broader regional strategy and the empty offices of almost all senior Asia policy officials. Along with the president’s abrupt withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership upon entering office, these actions have led to a collapse of public confidence in the region about America’s commitment. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang can meanwhile say with even greater authority that China will always show up — as either friend or adversary. (As the head of government, Li is Beijing’s regular leader for the summit. He is also the only member of the Politburo Standing Committee to be re-elected with Xi this month).
Second, failing to join the summit diminishes the U.S. presidency. It’s easy to imagine the White House staff relieved that Trump’s decision not to attend curtails the risk of more off-the-cuff diplomacy. Representing Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will certainly be a more predictable substitute. But even the most capable Cabinet official cannot replace the president in these settings, especially when he has been regularly contradicted and undermined by the president he ostensibly represents. If Trump joins the summit, on the other hand, it will show that the United States is willing to put skin in the game and collaborate with the leaders of the world’s fastest-growing region.
The president may view his attendance at these types of events as inconsequential, but it’s not. Absence — whether from agreements America tears up or the summits American leaders skip — grows into irrelevance. As allies and adversaries address problems without American involvement, the president’s leverage and the U.S. bargaining position will be weakened on regional priorities, from trade to North Korea.
In fact, North Korea and bilateral trade are the only issues on which the region expects the United States to focus during the trip, to the detriment of all other regional priorities. Especially for partners in Southeast Asia, the summit is the best opportunity to engage the president directly on the South China Sea, on U.S. assistance in countering violent extremism in the region, on the growing Rohingya crisis, and on America’s commitment to an Asia that operates by shared rules instead of “might makes right.” Making similar points in a planned speech along the way is not the same as discussing the issues face-to-face with regional counterparts.
But the most worrisome implication of America’s absence from the East Asia Summit will be the message it sends about U.S. staying power and relevance as a global leader. With Xi’s growing dominance, Trump’s planned absence furthers an increasingly common narrative that the United States is in decline, distracted, and perhaps simply not concerned with the international values and rules it once helped establish.
Regional partners have watched with confusion and dismay as the United States walks away from multiple agreements it not only joined, but also helped create — not just the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but also the Paris climate agreement and potentially the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. This unprecedented abandonment of a predecessor’s international commitments may play well to some at home, but it is almost impossible to manage with regional partners who now muse about how to sustain a U.S.-led, rules-based order without U.S. leadership.
China is keen to step into the breach. From Xi’s sweeping Davos speech in January outlining China’s support for international trade to his public commitment to work with U.S. allies on continued implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, China has leveraged every opportunity to position itself as the more reliable global leader. Beyond the stark contrast in rhetoric, the contrast in leadership has been on display as well. If anything, Xi’s consolidation of power at the recent Party Congress should have prompted the U.S. administration to reconsider and have Trump stay for the summit.
China seeks every opportunity to frame the debate and redefine the rules of engagement in Asia. Asian multilateral institutions will not fix this, of course. But the East Asia Summit offers the only leader-level opportunity to engage on North Korea, cyber norms, nonproliferation, violent extremism, and the burgeoning refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have consistently argued for a steady hand and strong commitment to what Tillerson called a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” That’s not a part of Xi’s agenda for the region, and it’s a vision impossible to achieve if the United States is busy getting out of the way for the new king.