SINGAPORE - Veteran Asia-watcher Tommy Koh on Wednesday (Nov 14) questioned the Trump administration's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, calling attention to President Donald Trump's decision to shun key Asean meetings with Asean and asking if the US concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific had an ideological bent that excludes China.
He also criticised the Trump administration's disruption of the rules-based, multilateral international order which has underwritten Asia's prosperity and nation-building for decades.
Professor Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large, was speaking in his personal capacity at a conference where he was joined by Acting US Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy and top US diplomat to Asean, Charge D'affaires Piper Campbell.
The participants at the event, held by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the East West Centre in Washington, took stock of current US-Indo Pacific relations.
"If Asia matters to America, why is your leader President Trump not here?" Prof Koh asked, pointing out that in the Asian cultural context, showing up for a meeting counted and a smooth and successful summit was in itself a deliverable. "I don't know who advised President Trump not to attend these meetings… but it was very bad advice."
Mr Trump is represented by his Vice-President Mike Pence, who arrived in Singapore on Tuesday night and will participate in Thursday's Asean-US meeting and the East Asia Summit.
US officials at the conference defended Mr Trump's decision to send Mr Pence to the meetings in Singapore, calling him a close associate who would effectively deliver Mr Trump's message that Asean was central to its policies in the region.
Prof Koh also took exception to the new turn in US foreign policy captured in its vision of a "free and open" Indo-Pacific. The concept, aimed at defending its interests in the region in the face of China's ever-growing presence, was first announced by Mr Trump at last year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.
"I'm not comfortable with the US abandoning a concept that we know and have used for many years - the Asia-Pacific," Prof Koh said, adding that Washington's new stance had left many Asian nations puzzled.
"Is the Indo-Pacific purely a geographic concept or is it also ideological? It is very confusing to us in Asean because there are so many interpretations," he said, pointing to the Indonesian version which is a geographical idea describing areas where the Indian and Pacific Oceans mingle and the one enunciated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which has the intent of bringing India into the strategic equation in Asia-Pacific.
More recently, the US has given the Indo-Pacific an ideological spin with its prefix "free and open" Prof Koh said. "This appears to be driven by the so-called quad countries - the US, Japan, Australia, which are allies, and India. These are democracies. Many of us feel a slight discomfort because if it is ideological in content, is it intended to exclude countries in the region which are not democracies. Is the strategic intent targeted at excluding China? If that is the intent, then we are not comfortable because we in Asean want a regional order that is open and inclusive."
He also said Asian nations were concerned by Mr Trump's overturning of the US-led liberal economic order which had ushered in prosperity through a free exchange of goods, services, technology, ideas and talent.
Mr Trump's trade war with China has sparked tit-for-tat tariffs that threaten to lower world economic growth.
"There is a great sense of discomfort in the region at the current posture of the US that seems to turning against its very own creation," said Prof Koh.
"The US seems against free trade, globalisation, multilateralism when we are in favour."
"Do people in Washington realise that their current policy runs diametrically opposite the fundamental interests of Asia?"
Ms Campbell, America's top Asean diplomat, took on the perception that the US freedom of navigation operations in the region are "provocative". China has raised objections to these operations which are intended to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some South-east Asian navies operate.
"To describe these as provocative is to buy into the false equivalency which is a narrative that we are finding really challenging," Ms Campbell said.
"When China militarises disputed islands, that is an aggressive action. For a country in this region to be militarising features at the same time that it is engaging in a negotiation of a code of conduct, changing the facts on the ground at the same time as it is negotiating, those are problematic actions, not the action of the US in this area."
China and the Asean are currently in talks for a code of conduct aimed at managing differences in disputed areas in the South China Sea.
In his comments earlier in the session, Mr Murphy said the US regional policies place Asean squarely at centre, saying: "This is not a region where any single country should dominate, bully or coerce or design the rules. The rules are already there."
Tackling criticism that the US was enacting tariff barriers to free trade, Ms Campbell said the US was seeking to make free trade fair. "We need to work together to remove non-tariff barriers, to call out behaviour which is inconsistent with agreements entered," she said, in a reference to Washington's complaint that China has not opened up its markets fully, practices policies that privilege its own companies and indulges in theft of US intellectual property.
Dr Satu Limaye, director of Washington-based think tank East West Centre, said the US policies under a free and open Indo-Pacific were ideological to the extent that they contained certain norms like the US respect for national sovereignty, contrasting it with some of China's policies criticised for creating "debt traps" by lending countries large infrastructure loans they are unable to repay.
"If that is what is meant by ideology, that serves the interests not just of the US but also the region," Dr Limaye said.