As US President Donald Trump makes his first trip to Asia, can the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) count on continued US commitment to multilateralism in Southeast Asia?

Initially, the news that Trump no longer planned to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) during his tour of Asia attracted blistering criticism. Former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell noted that “multilateralism in Asia is often just about showing up, but even that appears to be hard for him.”

However, Trump changed his mind yet again, recently announcing that he will attend the EAS after all. Though Trump’s about-face on the EAS certainly warranted concern, it did not signal the death of US engagement with Asean.

The better litmus test of US commitment to the regional grouping was going to and still will be Trump’s participation in the fifth US-Asean Summit, which—as of now—Trump still plans to attend.

The US-Asean Summit is a tangible product of ex-President Barack Obama’s sustained attention and personal commitment to strengthening US involvement in Southeast Asia. Obama deepened US-Asean ties and drummed up support for his vision for Southeast Asia, a core pillar of the administration’s “rebalance” to Asia policy.

The process, through which the US-Asean Summit was realized, reveals a now mature relationship, which suggests that US-Asean cooperation should be relatively stable under Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania arrive on Air Force One at Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania arrive on Air Force One at Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Talk of an US-Asean summit first began during George W Bush’s presidency. Following years of ministerial-level dialogue relations, the US and Asean launched an enhanced partnership in 2005 and a subsequent plan of action in 2006, expressing interest in a future US-Asean Summit.

In November 2009, Obama attended the first US-Asean Leaders’ Meeting, which signaled the administration’s unprecedented interest in enhancing ties with the grouping; no US president had previously met with the Asean leaders as a bloc.

At this first leaders’ meeting, the US acceded to Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, named an ambassador to Asean, and committed to opening a diplomatic mission to Asean.

Progress continued in September 2010 at the second US-Asean Leaders’ Meeting, where the gathered leaders announced their intention to elevate the US-Asean relationship to a strategic level.

Two years later, in November 2012 during the fourth US-Asean Leaders’ Meeting, they agreed to upgrade their annual leaders’ meeting to an institutionalized US-Asean Summit.

Ironically, after years of sustained personal attention, in October 2013 Obama was unable to attend the first US-Asean Summit. However, relations picked up steam once again in November 2015, when the two sides formally announced the US-Asean Strategic Partnership.

US President Barack Obama and leaders take part in a group photo during a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the Sunnylands estate on February 16, 2016 in Rancho Mirage, California. From left: ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, Laos' President Choummaly Sayasone, Obama, Philippine's President Benigno Aquino, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and Myanmar's Vice President Nyan Tun. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN
US President Barack Obama (C) and Asean at the Sunnylands estate on February 16, 2016 in Rancho Mirage, California. Photo: AFP/Mandal Ngan

In February 2016, Obama hosted the first Special US-Asean Summit in Sunnylands, California. In September that year, during the fourth US-Asean Summit, the gathered leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the agenda previously outlined in the Sunnylands Declaration.

With this progressive deepening of US-Asean ties came tangible results in a number of areas. High-level multilateral fora are designed to build consensus rather than fix specific problems.

While that summit did not help Obama “solve” individual issues like the South China Sea territorial disputes, it did enable him to build consensus around his vision for Asean, allowing him to successfully implement the Southeast Asia-focused pillars of his “rebalance to Asia.”

In particular, Obama’s efforts led to improved regional economic integration and security cooperation.

Strengthening economic ties with the grouping was a key Obama goal. During his eight-year presidency US-Asean trade in goods increased by 58%, reaching a value of US$234 billion in 2016. Trade with Asean supports more than 500,000 US jobs, and the grouping is now the United States’ fourth largest trading partner.

During the same period US foreign direct investment in Asean doubled. The increase in trade and investment was facilitated through a number of initiatives, several of which were given impetus by sustained high-level summitry.

The US and Asean also significantly improved security cooperation. At the first US-Asean Leaders Meeting in 2009, Obama and regional leaders called for consultations on the US joining the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) framework.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walks with defense ministers with the Association of South East Asian Nations in Honolulu, Hawaii April 1, 2014. Hagel held a round table meeting as well as visiting military bases around Honolulu showcasing the aid and support the United States can partner with the ASEAN nations. DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Released)
Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel with Asean defense ministers in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 1, 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/US DoD/Erin Kirk-Cuomo

The US Secretary of Defense participated in the first ADMM-Plus in 2010. Through the ADMM-Plus, the US military has conducted live exercises with the militaries of Asean and seven other countries, including the Maritime Security Field Training Exercise in 2013 and Humanitarian Mine Action and Peacekeeping Operations in 2016.

When Trump attends the fifth US-Asean Summit later this week, many will hope he advances this Obama-era progress economic integration and security cooperation. As others have argued, Trump is unlikely to exhibit Obama’s unprecedented enthusiasm for multilateral engagement in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, Trump has shown far more interest in bilateral relations with the region, having already hosted the leaders of Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand to the White House. Trump has also invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who he will meet in Manila.

Largely thanks to Obama’s efforts, US-Asean relations are now highly institutionalized, meaning that cooperation on most issues will likely continue as normal.

For instance, in May 2017 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended a US-Asean foreign ministers meeting that addressed economic integration, North Korea and the South China Sea—all topics which the US and Asean discussed and cooperated on long before Trump’s election.

In other words, US-Asean relations are now largely on autopilot, guided by cabinet officials and bureaucrats, not the White House. As US Ambassador Derek Mitchell insinuated, as long as Trump merely shows up to the US-Asean Summit strong relations will likely be maintained.