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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Donald Trump's foreign policy shift is good news for ASEAN

The US president's emphasis on national interests could keep China at bay

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U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in January   © Reuters

It was bound to happen. With one brief trans-Pacific phone call to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, U.S. President Donald Trump rewrote the playbook that has governed U.S.-Thai relations over the past decade.

Trump is likely to reorient America's geostrategic aims in Asia during his administration. While his predecessor, Barack Obama, tried to rebalance U.S. resources and interests from the Atlantic to the Pacific -- a shift known as the pivot to Asia -- Trump's geostrategic turn could be called a pivot in Asia.

Under Trump, America's geopolitical preoccupations remain unchanged, dominated by the Middle East quagmire, Islamic State group-inspired terrorism, the European Union's tribulations and hot spots elsewhere. But while the new president's focus in Asia has so far been confined to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, his discussion with Prayuth, in conjunction with similar calls to Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president and current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, signal a shift in priorities.

Trump is unlikely to be as fixated on human rights and democracy as Obama, whose administration repeatedly called on Thailand to resume elections and popular rule as soon as possible. When Prayuth in May 2014 led Thailand's 13th successful coup in 85 years, Washington responded with sanctions and a general downgrade in the bilateral treaty alliance, triggering similar reactions by other democratic countries, including Japan.

Although they remained outwardly cordial, relations between the U.S. and Thailand, Washington's oldest friend in Asia for more than 180 years, were strained. Obama met with Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's last elected leader, more frequently than with Prayuth, who saw Obama only occasionally on the sidelines of multilateral meetings.

Trump is different. In his inauguration speech in January, he declared: "We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone." Trump's pivot in Asia centers on an overdue shift toward national interests and away from values. It is not as if the U.S. will abandon altogether its advocacy of human rights and basic freedoms in Asia, but the priorities and policy nuances will be different. Because Trump has been accused of authoritarian tendencies in violating civil liberties at home, he is not well positioned to preach about rights and freedoms abroad.

Trump's preference for pursuing interests over values chimes with the election victory last year of Duterte, whose strongman instincts, hardball tactics in the deadly war on drugs and overall governing style have violated human rights and fundamental freedoms. As the previous U.S. administration's criticisms of his human rights record mounted, bilateral relations degenerated into vulgarity: The tough-talking leader in Manila called Obama a "son of a bitch" last September and later made similarly derogatory remarks about the EU.

With the Philippines and Thailand as America's only security treaty allies in Southeast Asia, Duterte's showmanship and rough methods have made Prayuth look less deplorable by comparison. Suddenly Thailand's military government is not the only one in the region with a shoddy human rights reputation. The death toll of more than 7,000 in Duterte's war on drugs far overshadows the Prayuth regime's detention of several hundred dissenters and critics for "attitude adjustment" in military barracks for up to a week.

TEST CASES Trump's treatment of the Philippines and Thailand give an inkling of how he will deal with Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as a whole, going forward. Trump's phone calls to Prayuth, Duterte and Lee were designed to rally U.S. allies and partners in ASEAN as Washington tries to further isolate North Korea and weighs its options for responding to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. Trump also has reached out to Chinese President Xi Jinping regularly, culminating in a tete-a-tete in Florida in April.

When it comes to Asia, Trump's attention is still consumed by the North Korean nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan, another pair of U.S. treaty allies in Asia, and to the U.S. itself if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un succeeds in developing a ballistic missile that can reach that far.

ASEAN is beginning to loom larger in the view of U.S. officials. Trump's recent phone calls from afar were sweetened with personal invitations to both Prayuth and Duterte to visit the White House. The Thai leader leaped at the opportunity by putting Washington on his travel itinerary, probably before Trump visits the region. It would not be surprising if Duterte later accepts Trump's invitation as well, despite his initial coy response of having to check his scheduling commitments.

Moreover, both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence have openly sought ASEAN's cooperation to politically ostracize and economically cripple the Pyongyang regime, in a squeeze that could see Kim ousted from within or coerced into changing his policy on nuclear and missile development. Pence also assured ASEAN recently that Trump will visit the region for summits led by the group in November.

ASEAN's importance is likely to grow for Trump. His priorities bode well for the group's own search for a new regional balance in response to China's expansion in the South China Sea. Although the Philippines won a landmark ruling at The Hague tribunal in July 2016, Duterte has gambled by putting aside his country's legal victory in favor of a bilateral deal with China.

He was instrumental in leaving the ruling out of the recent joint statement issued at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila in April, which he chaired. Central to his accommodation effort is China's willingness to agree to a set of rules for regional maritime behavior, known as the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. If China reneges, or dilutes these deliberations to the point of ineffectiveness, Duterte will have miscalculated.

Either way, there is ample room for the U.S. under Trump to help the regional states rebalance their collective weight vis-a-vis China. ASEAN states also welcome the working relationship between Trump and Xi, but they do not want a far-reaching U.S.-China agreement that undercuts their interest in maintaining regional autonomy and territorial integrity. Trump's pivot in Asia, from altering the balance between values and interests to reaffirming ASEAN's role in Washington's geostrategic calculus, could be the real rebalancing that Southeast Asia has been looking for.

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

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