November 11, 2016 3:20 am JST
Thitinan Pongsudhirak

How a Trump presidency will affect Southeast Asia

The spectacular electoral upset that handed Donald Trump victory in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election will hasten the end of the 70-year-old postwar liberal order and shift relations between the U.S. and Southeast Asia onto a new footing that favors interests over values. As a maverick from outside the political establishment who brandishes an "America First" agenda, a Trump administration over the next four years conjures up the specter of a more inward-looking superpower that will no longer shoulder the traditional burdens of global leadership.

To navigate and secure their regional neighborhood, Southeast Asian countries will need to rely more on middle-power U.S. allies, including Japan and Australia, in their dealings with a brooding China. U.S. support for regional stability and a more balanced security environment may become more complementary and crucial rather than indispensable and decisive.

Yet the diminished role of the U.S. in the region was in train before Trump's victory. The "Asian pivot" and "rebalance" strategy of the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama, instrumentally crafted under then-secretary of state and presidential runner-up Hillary Clinton, ultimately proved shallow and unreliable, underpinned by rhetorical footwork with little substantive thrust.

The Obama pivot was akin to the inkless "red lines" drawn in the Middle East where U.S. leadership was confined to "leading from behind," eschewing boots-on-the-ground in favor of remote-controlled drone attacks. Leading from the back often meant not leading at all. Obama is reasonably popular because of his personal appeal but his policy record is mixed. His administration too often walked loudly but carried a meek stick.

Such lack of demonstrable leadership was conspicuous in Southeast Asia, and no regional state is more cognizant of it than the Philippines. The Obama pivot partly aggravated China's regional belligerence. China got away with its seizure of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012 and a dozen or so reefs and rocks up and down the disputed waters thereafter, mostly at the expense of Philippine interests.

When Manila eventually won a landmark decision against China's trespassing and theft at the Permanent Court of Arbitration last July, Beijing naturally defied the ruling in chest-thumping fashion. Washington harped on about the need to comply with the ruling and abide by international law. Yet the U.S. is still not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The most muscle-flexing Washington has done to check China's aggressive maneuvers in the area is to conduct freedom-of-navigation operational patrols.

Newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte saw through America's "superpower status on the cheap" and bit the bullet by dealing with China directly without preconditions, even putting the favorable PCA ruling to the side. Had Duterte courted China alone, he would have been ill-advised and susceptible to manipulation by a giant neighbor. But when Duterte sought succor from Japan after visiting China, it was clear he knew how to dance in the regional geopolitical arena. He came back with a total of $43 billion in development pledges from China and Japan in a well-hedged 55:45 split. His government now finds more accommodation from Beijing but also has Tokyo on board as a counterweight.

Duterte was merely following in the footsteps of Thailand's military leaders after they seized power in May 2014 ahead of an existential royal transition. Ostracized and criticized by Western democracies, the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha received early support and recognition from Beijing. A flurry of high-level bilateral visits led to concrete plans for Chinese infrastructure investment in Thailand.

But when the Chinese presented harsh loan and technical terms with comparatively high interest rates and short repayment periods, while demanding land use rights for two major rail megaprojects, the Thai government made overtures to Japan. In February 2015, when Prayuth made an official visit to Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deftly managed to get his Thai counterpart to reiterate a road map for returning Thailand to democratic rule. In the process he nabbed a major piece of its rail upgrade.

Losing Southeast Asia

If it is equipped with a bigger stick, it matters less to Southeast Asia how the U.S. walks. A cursory glance around the region indicates that Washington risks losing Southeast Asia to China. The smaller states -- Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos -- are all beholden to Beijing. So are the Philippines and Thailand, who happen to be formal U.S. treaty allies. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo also have sought Beijing's largesse and infrastructure support. Notwithstanding recent tension with China, Singapore is inevitably heading in the same direction. Myanmar meanwhile cannot achieve a lasting internal peace between the central government and ethnic minorities without Chinese acquiescence. And Vietnam cannot afford to stand up to Beijing at the cost of its economic imperatives.

While Trump is an unknown quantity because he is a complete political outsider with virtually no policy track record, his personal background, campaign pledges and isolationist posturing toward issues such as minimizing immigration and re-shoring America's global manufacturing to the U.S. point to a relative re-prioritization of America's interests over its values. A Trump administration may even strengthen and rebuild U.S. hard power but its geopolitical engagement in Southeast Asia will be on Washington's terms, spearheaded by commercial interests with less emphasis on human rights and democracy.

The U.S. under Trump might well get on better with Southeast Asia's mixture of democratic and authoritarian regimes. But the U.S. may be re-entering a nativist and navel-gazing phase, not seen since the interwar years almost a century ago, to preclude a wider regional role after the disappointing Obama pivot. Trump's best strategy would be to bring in Japan and Australia to shore up America's lost pre-eminence and secure a realigned and more balanced region. Japan may have to become the "new U.S." in Southeast Asia's security landscape. Southeast Asian governments would welcome a more assertive Japan as a counterbalance to China, whereas much of Japan's future is inextricably tied up with Southeast Asia's fate and fortune.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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