Trade tensions will be a major focus of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings in Singapore this week, with the leaders of Russia, India and Japan attending. Notably absent: U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Vice President Mike Pence said en route to Japan last night that Trump’s decision to skip the ASEAN and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings was not a snub and that the U.S.’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region “has never been stronger.”
Yet Trump’s decision comes on the back of months of economic battle with China and his decision to pull the U.S. out of a major Pacific trade deal last year. Leaders attending the ASEAN meeting include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Bloomberg noted the last time a U.S. president skipped the Asian summits was when Barack Obama was dealing with a government shutdown in 2013. Trump is currently in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will be representing China ahead of President Xi’s attendance at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea, starting Nov. 17. It was during the 2017 APEC meeting that Trump met with Putin and declared he believed the Russian president when he said he had not interfered with the 2016 U.S. election.
In representing the U.S. this week, Pence has the president’s full backing and plans to announce several new initiatives, a senior administration official told reporters. After Pence accused China of meddling in U.S. elections in a harsh speech last month, it’s unclear whether Li and Pence will hold talks on the sidelines of the Singapore meetings. Trump and Xi are scheduled to meet at the end of the month during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.
Li is expected to rally support for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade deal that would include more than a third of the world’s GDP. So far 16 countries are involved, including China, India, Japan and South Korea, but not the United States. Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong told reporters it “will be of great significance for deepening regional cooperation, coping with unilateralism and protectionism, and promoting an open, inclusive and rules-based international trading system.”