US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper exchanged bromides and handshakes across Southeast Asia this week, including stops in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, in a tour that underscored the Pentagon’s lead role in President Donald Trump’s regional diplomacy.

The tour’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the [Indo-Pacific] theater is DoD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”

Behind the rhetoric, Esper was also likely trying to pick up the pieces after Trump failed to attend a recent series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meetings staged in Bangkok, perceived among many as a top-level US snub of the region’s premier annual diplomatic event.

In a blunt expression of diplomatic pique, ASEAN leaders in attendance declined to attend a US Summit staged at the event overseen by Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien, a diplomatic representation seen as too junior to preside over a meeting attended by heads of state.

Facing impeachment, focused on his trade war and heading into a 2020 re-election campaign, it was hardly surprising that Trump skipped the annual ASEAN and East Asian Summits for the second consecutive year.

But Trump’s absence was compounded by neither Vice President Mike Pence nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making the journey to Bangkok, where the US was represented by O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Whether Esper’s security-oriented follow-up tour of the region repaired the diplomatic damage was not immediately clear.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at a press conference with his Philippine counterpart at the Department of Defense in Manila on November 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

What is clear, however, is that Trump clearly favors the Pentagon’s caps and uniforms over the State Department’s suit-and-tied career diplomats to conduct his policy towards the strategic region.

“Nowadays, the United States has largely anchored its connection to the region as a military power,” said Elizabeth Becker, an author and journalist who has covered Asia since the 1970’s.

In Hanoi, Esper announced that the US would give its old battlefield adversary Vietnam a second coast guard cutter to supplement a previous given vessel.

The cutter will provide a boost to Vietnam’s naval patrols in the disputed South China Sea, where tensions have surged between Hanoi and Beijing in recent months and the US has vowed to maintain “freedom of navigation” faced with China’s advances in the contested maritime area.

Announcing the move in a speech at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Esper took aim at a “bullying” China, which he accused of “unilateral efforts to assert illegal maritime claims” in the sea, most of which China claims via its nine-dash line map.

Earlier in the week, Esper told ASEAN defense ministers gathered in Bangkok that the US doubted China’s intentions over a long-awaited “code of conduct” for the contested South China Sea, through which an estimated US$5 billion worth of trade passes each year and under which lies potentially lucrative hydrocarbons.

Ahead of that meeting, Esper signed a joint “vision statement” on defense with long-time ally Thailand that, among other things, promised more bilateral security cooperation, capacity-building, education, training and initiatives to improve interoperability and modernization of defense and security institutions.

The announcement came after Thailand took delivery last month of a first batch group of 120 “Stryker” armored vehicles geared for moving infantry units that will be committed to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s elite guard.

The US agreed to give Thailand 23 of the advanced vehicles for free, in a sweetheart deal aimed at repairing ties after a prolonged downturn in the wake of Thailand’s suspension of democracy in a 2014 coup.

US National Security advisor Robert O’Brien (L) and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at the ASEAN-US Summit, Bangkok, November 4, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

Symbolically, a small group of uniformed US Marines accompanied Esper and reportedly firmly saluted Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army commander and coup-maker, ahead of their bilateral meeting at Government House.

Thailand, like others in the region, is bidding to strike a delicate strategic balance between the US and China, engaging each on terms that won’t likely peeve the other.

In Thailand’s case, that has meant tarrying on allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei to lead its 5G development and rollout, and seeking a mutually agreed location to host a recently procured Chinese submarine that won’t cause US naval ships to stop docking at its Sattahip naval base.

The US has flagged China as its greatest potential adversary in national security reports published in recent months, a judgment that comes as Beijing increasingly asserts its weight across Asia. That was underscored on a global scale by Pompeo in a speech to NATO allies in Brussels on November 20.

“Our alliance must address the current and potential long-term threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said. “Seventy years ago, the founding nations of NATO came together for the cause of freedom and democracy. We cannot ignore the fundamental differences and beliefs in the – between our countries and those of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Some analysts see China’s growing reach into Southeast Asia in a manner reminiscent of America’s old Monroe Doctrine, which saw the US restrict other powers’ access to the Americas, according to Becker, who characterized China’s disposition as “this is my neighborhood – stay out!”

Esper’s trip came as Commerce Secretary Ross led a delegation of American corporate representatives on a November 3-8 tour of Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, a business trip that trumpeted big deals including American electrical power company AES’s commitment to build a $1.7 billion gas-fired power plant in Vietnam.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) talks with Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich (R) at the Defense Ministry in Hanoi, November 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Still, Ross was quick to remind his ASEAN hosts of some of the Trump administration’s peeves: the Indo-Pacific region’s “significant trade imbalance — $1.23 trillion in imports to the United States but only $720 billion in exports” and how the “economies of Asia prospered while the United States military secured sea lanes and open American markets powered Asia’s productivity growth.”

Such “America First” and pay-your-fair-share rhetoric is part of Trump’s Asia policy, which increasingly puts confronting China front and center, including in trade, technology and security issues, though arguably at the expense of causes the US previously gave priority like democracy and rights.

Indeed, the Trump administration’s increasingly overt anti-China policies and the skirting of traditional diplomacy have served threatening notice to China’s strongest regional allies, as perceptions grow the US is not-so-subtly pressuring ASEAN nations to take superpower sides.

Cambodia, which has been seen as doing China’s bidding in ASEAN meetings on the South China Sea disputes and which has stirred concerns in Washington over allegations it has allowed China exclusive access to one of its naval bases on the Gulf of Thailand, is a geo-strategic case in point.

Cambodian naval officers during a sea drill. Photo: Wikipedia
Cambodian naval officers during a sea drill. Photo: Wikipedia

Phnom Penh also cancelled annual joint military exercises with the US ahead of an anti-democratic crackdown that targeted American interests in the country.

“Trump himself is hopeless, but his administration has actually been harder on the [Cambodian] regime than [Barack] Obama’s administration was and I think this is a wake-up call for Phnom Penh, said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“They thought the US was going to let them slide, that it was going to be an autocrat’s fiesta. Turns out being buddies with China means you’re going to get a target on your back.”

Shawn W. Crispin provided reporting from Bangkok