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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Why Was the U.S.-ASEAN
Special Meeting Cancelled?
Carlyle A. Thayer
March 3, 2020

We have seen your comments on the upcoming port visit by the USS Theodore
Roosevelt to Vietnam. My organisation requests your assessment of the following
issues:
Q1. Media reports have suggested that the Trump Administration cancelled the U.S.-
ASEAN Special Meeting of leaders in mid-March. What are the implications of the
cancellation for the U.S., ASEAN members, and in particular Vietnam, the ASEAN Chair
for 2020?
ANSWER: The cancellation of the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Special Meeting to
commemorate the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership was officially confirmed by the
U.S. State Department on 28 February. It is a major blow to U.S. relations with ASEAN.
Not only has President Trump absented himself from two high-level meetings with
ASEAN leaders, but it is unlikely that another summit can be held in 2020. This is
mainly due to domestic campaigning for the 3rd November U.S. presidential elections
that will start in mid-year after the Democratic and Republican parties hold their
national conventions and nominate their candidates.
ASEAN is scheduled to hold the ASEAN and related summits, as well as the East Asia
Summit (EAS), from 11-15 November. If Trump wins it seems unlikely he would attend
these meetings because he will have to form his new Cabinet and prepare for
inauguration. If Trump loses, the new U.S. president will not take office until January
2021.
The cancellation of the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Special Meeting will undermine Vietnam’s
role as ASEAN Chair because China will be the beneficiary. It will be most difficult for
the ASEAN Chair to balance relations between China and the United States if the U.S.
declines to participate at head of government level.
Q2. Besides Covid-19 cited as the main reason, what could be other reasons for the
cancellation? Does the cancellation indicate the lack of the U.S. interest in the Indo-
Pacific under the Trump Administration?
ANSWER: The State Department’s official announcement on 28 February stated that
the U.S.-ASEAN Special Meeting was cancelled “as countries around the globe
continued to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).” It is unclear from
this wording whether the United States cancelled the summit on its own accord or in
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response to a request from one or more ASEAN members. The wording suggests that
the Covid-19 was used as a plausible excuse for cancelling the meeting but may not
have been the key reason.
President Trump has demonstrated that he is not personally committed to multilateral
organisations in general. ASEAN is an important multilateral organisation in the Indo-
Pacific. Trump’s well known views and repeated “no-shows” are in contrast to official
U.S. reaffirmations of support for ASEAN centrality and the EAS’ role as a leaders-led
forum.
In light of the blowback by several ASEAN leaders who lowered their participation at
the ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting in November in Bangkok, Trump appears to have
been convinced to hold a special meeting to recoup his losses. In January, he invited
ASEAN leaders to the gambling city of Las Vegas on 14 March.
Las Vegas was a questionable venue unless there was some underlying domestic
political reason for Trump to attend. Some American observers argue that Trump’s
visit to India and the U.S.-ASEAN Special Meeting in Las Vegas were designed to
portray him as a respected world statesman to a domestic American audience in an
election year. In other words, these meetings were more about raising Trump’s
international profile than substantive matters.
Trump’s ploy seemingly backfired as several ASEAN leaders reportedly expressed their
disappointment at the lack of a meaningful agenda. After all, a Special Meeting could
have focused on U.S.-ASEAN cooperation to deal with the coronavirus. The cancelled
meeting thus represented a huge opportunity cost.
Prior to the formal cancellation of the Special Meeting Philippines’ President Rodrigo
Duterte declared publicly he would not attend. The political crisis that erupted in
Malaysia put a big question mark over the attendance of its prime minister. Other
sources report that Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi declined to attend. Other ASEAN
leaders may have concluded that “no meeting was better than a poorly attended
meeting” to commemorate the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnershipl.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Why Was the U.S.-ASEAN Special Meeting
Cancelled?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, March 3, 2020. All background
briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.