Pence subs for Trump at summits with sceptical Asian nations

As the top representative from the world's largest economy, US Vice-President Mike Pence will have an audience with several world leaders interested in hearing more about US policy.
As the top representative from the world's largest economy, US Vice-President Mike Pence will have an audience with several world leaders interested in hearing more about US policy.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Mike Pence will stand in for President Donald Trump at several international gatherings this week in Asia, a region where the US faces increasing doubts about its commitment and consistency.

The vice-president visits Tokyo, Singapore and Papua New Guinea with the goal of reassuring allies about US policy toward Asia.

His main problem in doing so: he's not the President.

Mr Trump, by opting to skip meetings hosted by the Association of South-east Asian Nations and a gathering of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping this week, became the first US President not to attend since 2013, when then-President Barack Obama cancelled his visit to deal with a government shutdown.

The President's absence leaves Mr Pence to fill a void that's grown wider under Mr Trump, who's pulled out of a major Pacific trade deal, slapped tariffs on allies, and intensified a diplomatic and economic battle with China.

Mr Pence will need to make significant announcements to overcome growing scepticism about the Trump administration's commitment to Asia, said Mr Anthony Nelson, director of the East Asia and Pacific practice at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington.

NEW INITIATIVES

"There has been disappointment that President Trump did not commit to coming," said Mr Nelson, a former director of the US-Asean Business Council.

"Pence can try to say the right things, but without anything concrete that he can offer, it's hard to think it won't be overshadowed by what everyone knows the administration is thinking."

 
 

Mr Pence has the President's full backing and plans to announce several new initiatives during his week-long trip, according to a senior administration official. They include bilateral, trilateral and possibly larger initiatives that cover the digital economy, energy and infrastructure, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

As the top representative from the world's largest economy, Mr Pence will have an audience with several world leaders interested in hearing more about US policy.

The vice-president begins his trip with meetings and a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday (Nov 13).

Mr Pence is also scheduled to have meetings with the prime ministers of Singapore, India, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

CHINA SPEECH

Many of those leaders will be watching to see if Mr Pence meets with Chinese government officials after the vice-president - who rarely makes waves in public appearances - lambasted China in an Oct 4 speech that reverberated around the region.

In the speech, made at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, Mr Pence accused Beijing of mounting a "whole-of-government approach" to sway American public opinion, attempting to meddle in US elections, stealing intellectual property and committing human rights abuses.

Mr Pence will attend the Asian summits alongside Chinese leaders just days before Mr Trump is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

That highly anticipated meeting follows months of intensifying antagonism between the world's largest two economies, which have been engaged in an escalating trade war marked by tit-for-tat tariffs.

Announcing Mr Pence's travel, spokeswoman Alyssa Farah made an implicit reference to China, indicating that the vice-president will have tough words for Beijing on issues like trade and militarisation in the South China Sea.

MORE TARIFFS?

Mr Pence plans to "deliver the message that authoritarianism, aggression, and the disregard for other nations' sovereignty by any nation in the Indo-Pacific will not be tolerated by the United States", Ms Farah said in a statement.

For his part, Mr Trump has threatened to levy more tariffs on Chinese goods early in 2019 if no deal is struck with Mr Xi before then.

Mr Pence's trip to Asia, and any meetings he has with Chinese officials, could set the tone for Mr Trump's meeting with Mr Xi.

But because Mr Trump has been known to undercut members of his administration on foreign policy, Mr Pence may face an uphill battle convincing regional leaders that he speaks for the President.

The Trump administration's mercurial nature is well-known throughout the region, said Dr Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor with Renmin University in Beijing.

'FAMILY PHOTO'

Mr Pence's attempt to reassure allies about US commitment to the region will probably be undercut by some of the images that come out of the summits, said Dr Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

When leaders gather for the "family photo", the vice-president will probably be relegated to a less prominent position, while the heads of state - possibly including China's Xi - will be centre stage, said Dr Cha, who served as director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

"It's just a very bad optic when we don't show up," he said. "There are small things they are doing, but the overall message is going to be that there's disinterest, and it's not a priority. And that's not good."