The Jakarta Post
It has not been a good year for diplomacy and summitry. You can call it the Trump Effect. Since the 45th president of the United States proclaimed “America First” and “Make America Great Again”, even staging a kerfuffle-free summit has become a tall order.
Last July, US President Donald Trump managed to drive a wedge between the US and its western European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by insulting Germany, showing up late for a session and threatening to pull the US out of the 69-year-old alliance. Earlier in June, a G7 meeting ended in disarray after Trump picked a fight with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Last week, during the commemoration of Armistice Day, Trump reignited his petty feud with Emmanuel Macron after the French president schooled him about the dangers of nationalism.
What transpired last week in Port Moresby did not directly involve Trump, but it bore the hallmarks of his administration’s belligerent tone. It is safe to say that the botched Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the capital city of Papua New Guinea is the point where diplomacy reached rock bottom this year. Since its inception in 1989, APEC has become a sort of informal group of countries in the Pacific region and its summits have been boring talk shops.
The non-binding statement that last week’s APEC summit should have produced mostly touched on routine subjects such as sustainable tourism, natural disasters and micro, small and medium enterprises. However, the countries even failed to come up with an agreement for that kind of document because of tension that has been building for months between what Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill described as “two big giants in the room”, China and the US.
At the summit, China appeared to be responding to harsh rhetoric delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence, who has been carrying Trump’s can for the past two years. After attacking China during the ASEAN summit in Singapore the week before, Pence doubled down on his rhetoric, saying that the Chinese infrastructure initiative is a “debt trap” and that its trade practices would be doomed to failure. This was said as Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in the room.
Now, instead of bringing countries together, the APEC summit has become a battleground on which major powers stage their zero-sum games. Countries in the region, including Indonesia, are feeling a Cold War déjà vu and may have to face the choice of siding with one camp over the other.
When Trump first came to power, his “America First” doctrine was a pledge that he would fight for the country’s economy and his tariff war with China was a realization of that promise. Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who promoted “a pivot to Asia”, Trump has no geopolitical strategy for the region. So why not take his fight for US economic supremacy to the negotiating table and stop creating tension in the region?
If an anodyne forum like APEC could be weaponized, what’s next?