This week U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the ASEAN Secretariat, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to have visited ASEAN headquarters. Pictured below is Vice President Pence meeting with ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.
Vice President Pence also met with the permanent representatives of the ASEAN member states and members of the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative, a U.S.-sponsored people-to-people initiative.
The Pence visit should be viewed as a positive diplomatic development.
First, the Trump administration’s gesture of engaging with ASEAN as an institution should be much appreciated by ASEAN. President Obama visited Indonesia twice but never made an appearance at the ASEAN Secretariat.
Second, Vice President Pence announced that in November President Trump would attend both the APEC Summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila. President Trump’s participation in both meetings was not a given; President Obama missed 2 APEC summits and 3 EAS meetings during his presidency.
Third, when combined with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting scheduled for May 4 with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, these moves signal renewed attention to Southeast Asia as a region.
For the United States, a little goes a long way in ASEAN. Moves such as the Pence visit matter in the region’s diplomatic circles; previous U.S. absences from Asian regional meetings such as APEC and EAS were frequently criticized. Moreover, U.S. support of ASEAN economic integration initiatives such as the ASEAN Single Window promises a big return for a small investment. A fully functioning ASEAN Economic Community – one that operates both as a single market and a single production base – represents a great opportunity for American business.
Thus, the Pence visit and its accompanying initiatives are a welcome signal that America’s relationship with ASEAN remains a vital part of U.S. foreign policy.