By Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will skip summits with Asian leaders in Singapore and Papua New Guinea in November, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, the White House said on Friday, an announcement that will raise questions about his commitment to a regional strategy to counter China.
Trump was invited to attend the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and the East Asia summit in Singapore and also the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea. He had attended these events last November.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump asked Pence to represent him at the summits, where he will “highlight the United States’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, based on respect for sovereignty, the rule of law, and the principles of free, fair and reciprocal trade.”
Trump will travel to Paris to attend a Nov. 11 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One. Trump had wanted a U.S. military parade in Washington but balked at price estimates.
“While in Europe, the president also will visit Ireland to renew the deep and historic ties between our two nations,” Sanders said.
Later in November, Trump will attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires and will also travel to Colombia for talks about security, narcotics and regional affairs, Sanders said.
Trump’s decision to skip the Asian summits will inevitably raise questions about the extent of his commitment to a region that is home to some of the most pressing U.S. foreign policy challenges.
These include Trump’s stalled efforts to persuade North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States and strategic rivalry with China, with which Trump has engaged in a major trade war.
The Trump administration has touted an Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at increasing regional cooperation, notably with India, Australia and Japan, to counter China’s influence, including in the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has mounted naval patrols to challenge what it sees as Beijing’s excessive territorial claims.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a regional foreign ministers’ meeting in Singapore to prepare for the November summits and pledged nearly $300 million in new security funding for the Indo-Pacific – a drop in the ocean compared to the billions China has been pouring into the region.
Asia experts were not surprised by Trump’s decision.
“Trump hates travelling outside the U.S. and dislikes multilateral meetings,” said Bonnie Glaser of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Convincing Trump to travel to PNG, in particular, was likely impossible,” she said. “He will have a chance to meet with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping at the G20 a few weeks later,” adding that the decision on the summits “will further stoke doubts about the administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.”
Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution think tank, noted that Trump was not the first president to cancel trips to the Asian summits – his predecessor Barack Obama caused great disappointment when he withdrew from them in 2013.
Obama did so due to a government shutdown at home, but the decision raised questions about his vaunted “pivot” to Asia to counter China.
“There’s no question that many in Southeast Asia see the region caught uncomfortably between the United States and China,” Pollack said.
“The Trump administration’s repeated calls for a free and open Indo-Pacific have fallen flat in various capitals, which many see as very thin gruel, begging the issue of how the U.S. intends to remain relevant to the regional future.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)