Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Great Hall Of The People in Beijing, September 2018.
Lintao Jiang / Pool via REUTERS

In the U.S. National Defense Strategy published in January 2018, Washington announced the return of great power competition, branded China a “strategic competitor,” and called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Despite these rhetorical developments, however, there remain lingering questions surrounding the Trump administration’s episodic engagement with the region, its failure to coordinate with allies on major issues, and inadequate resourcing for initiatives outside the military realm.

These concerns will be on the mind of many of the national leaders gathering in Singapore for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits, and then in Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), this week. Conspicuously absent from the gatherings is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has chosen instead to send Vice President Mike Pence. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting a meeting with the leaders of the Pacific island states in

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