The appointment of National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien as the United States' Special Envoy to the East Asia Summit should have been seen as a sign of encouragement due to his close connection to the President. But it may also be perceived as a snub as he will be the first US delegate who is deemed to be not senior enough in the pecking order.
For the first time since the US joined the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011, the US delegation will not be led by top officials at the presidential or ministerial level. Since the EAS was established in 2005, no participating country has been represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. The US will be the first EAS participant to claim this unflattering accolade at 14th EAS to be held on 4 November 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand.
The White House’s announcement on 29 October 2019 of newly-minted National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and US-ASEAN Summit is likely to be met with deep disappointment by Southeast Asian officials, who have already been unimpressed by America’s lacklustre engagement with ASEAN in past two years.
Mr. O’Brien’s appointment could be interpreted as a sign of encouragement for ASEAN, given the personal and immediate access that Mr. O’Brien has to President Donald Trump in his capacity as National Security Advisor. His status as presidential special envoy would also elevate him as a personal emissary of the president. On the other hand, the fact that it was necessary to bestow additional honours on Mr. O’Brien amounts to an admission that the role of the National Security Advisor falls short of what is expected for a summit-level meeting.
While Mr. O’Brien is well-respected among U.S. foreign policy and judicial circles, he is an unfamiliar face in ASEAN.
Indeed, ASEAN members are likely to interpret Washington’s intentions differently. Filtered through the protocol-conscious lens of Southeast Asian officials, Mr. O’Brien’s appointment could be perceived as a snub rather than an affirmation of Southeast Asia’s importance to U.S. foreign policy. This is further compounded by the fact that America has not been represented at the EAS by its sitting president since 2017. It bears reminding that President Donald Trump attended the EAS luncheon at the 12th summit in Manila but not the meeting itself.
While Mr. O’Brien is well-respected among U.S. foreign policy and judicial circles, he is an unfamiliar face in ASEAN. His appointment as National Security Advisor just less than two months (18 September) casts doubts as to his ability to participate productively and substantively in the summits. Washington’s decision to appoint its chief of national security to the EAS also jibes poorly with the EAS’ role of facilitating softer forms of defence diplomacy, and will be taken as evidence that Washington’s claims of ASEAN’s importance amount to mere lip service.
The fact is Mr. O’Brien is outranked by fellow participant and Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who is a cabinet member. Given the importance of trade and investment to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, ASEAN leaders will no doubt ponder on the significance that Mr. Ross will be taking a backseat despite his more relevant and senior portfolio.
The configuration of this American delegation could have implications that will endure beyond this year’s summits. Washington’s appointment of a non-cabinet member as its mission leader, along with the repeated absence of the U.S. president, could discourage fellow EAS participants and provide an excuse for other delegations to downgrade their representations in future summits. This could set a dangerous precedent that would dilute the significance of the EAS and other ASEAN-led summits in future, thereby undermining the strategic purpose of these processes as an annual meeting of leaders to discuss and exchange views on urgent regional strategic issues, in addition to enabling regional cooperation. In fact, the significance of the EAS for the eight non-ASEAN member states is that the Summit is the only regular meeting which brings them together in an Asian context. In contrast, ASEAN has extensive bilateral and multilateral engagements with its Dialogue Partners year-round. This will also undermine ASEAN Centrality in the longer term.
Lastly, ASEAN leaders regard the level of diplomatic representation as a barometer of interest and engagement in Southeast Asia. They are likely to take such indicators into account when evaluating the nature and extent of future partnerships with all major powers, and Washington will be no exception.
Tang Siew Mun was previously the Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
Glenn Ong was a Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.