Trump visit to Philippines: Chance for US to reassure Asean it is not forgotten

US Marines (in light brown) and their Filipino counterparts (in green) participating in a joint exercise on Oct 9, 2015. US President Donald Trump will be attending the 50th anniversary celebration of Asean on Nov 12, a sign that could allay fears that the US has forgotten South-east Asia. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA • US President Donald Trump will attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of Asean on Nov 12 and the Asean-United States summit a day later during his visit to the Philippines, the last leg of his first trip to Asia.

These events present Mr Trump with opportunities to reassure allies in South-east Asia that the US has not forgotten them. This is vital as the US leader has shown little interest in South-east Asia, outside of what it can do to help rein in North Korea.

Besides opting out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which has four Asean signatories, including Singapore, he has also said little about disputes over the South China Sea.

Mr Trump's decision to skip the East Asia Summit, where the 10 members of Asean will meet eight dialogue partners, has also cast doubt on the US' credibility as an Asia-Pacific power and Mr Trump's interest in multilateralism.

But US Ambassador to the Philippines Kim Sung dismissed those views as "misguided", insisting Mr Trump's absence at the summit is merely a "scheduling issue".

"We have made clear that the US remains fully committed to the Asia-Pacific region and recognises its strategic importance," he told reporters last week.

But some believe that Mr Trump's very presence at the Asean meetings will be an achievement in itself.

During his visit to the Philippines, Mr Trump will also hold bilateral talks with his Philippine counterpart, Mr Rodrigo Duterte.

Both are expected to agree on the need to continue fighting violent extremism and to pile pressure on North Korea. Mr Trump will also likely back Mr Duterte's controversial war on drugs. A thorny issue, though, will be the human rights violations resulting from this war.

While the issue of the South China Sea disputes has been an area of emphasis at recent Asean meetings, it is expected to take a back seat in talks between Mr Trump and Mr Duterte.

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