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Wary of China, SE Asia courts U.S. attention

Pool photo/Reuters

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, is greeted by ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh before a meeting with ASEAN permanent representatives at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on Thursday.

The Associated Press JAKARTA (AP) — Southeast Asia, a focus of past U.S. presidents, has been overlooked thus far for the Trump administration, but U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia Thursday marked a sign of change and he announced the president would follow him to the region later this year.

Anxious Southeast Asian governments are looking for America’s commitment to counter China’s economic and military clout. Vietnam’s foreign minister is in Washington this week, and the top diplomats of the region’s 10-nation bloc are expected to arrive en masse in early May, amid concerns their interests were being crowded out as U.S. President Donald Trump prioritizes Middle East counterterrorism, traditional alliances in Europe and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Pence’s stop in Jakarta on a 10-day swing through the Asia-Pacific, meeting with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, sends a message that Trump’s interests in Asia extend beyond North Korea and the massive U.S. trade imbalance with China. It is the first to Southeast Asia by a top administration official, and Pence announced Thursday that Trump will attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in November.

Washington is “taking steps to strengthen our partnership with ASEAN and deepen our friendship,” Pence said, resolving to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation in combating terrorism and in the disputed South China Sea.

This year marks ASEAN’s 50th anniversary. November’s gathering is being held in the Philippines, setting the stage for an encounter between two unconventional leaders: Trump and the host, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president who is sometimes likened to the U.S. leader because of his outspokenness and unashamed populism. Duterte’s government welcomed Pence’s announcement that Trump would attend.

U.S.-Philippine relations are strained over Duterte’s war on drugs, and his brash efforts to forge closer ties with China. U.S. President Barack Obama scrapped a planned meeting last fall after Duterte cursed him. Before that, Obama engaged Southeast Asia more than any U.S. president since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and made ASEAN summits a virtual fixture in his diplomatic calendar.

Trump got off on the wrong foot. His “America first” rhetoric and abrupt withdrawal from Obama’s pan-Pacific trade pact raised fears of U.S. protectionism hurting the region’s 600 million people. They do $225 billion in trade with the U.S. each year. Trump’s relationship with Beijing remains unclear and his unorthodox foreign policy has begged the question as to whether he could ease U.S. demands on the South China Sea to win Chinese cooperation on North Korea.

“The region very much wants to know where the United States is going to stand on the South China Sea, and more broadly what its approach to China is going to be,” said Amy Searight, a former top U.S. defense official for the region.

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