July 13, 2017 9:00 am JST
Joseph Chinyong Liow

Southeast Asia views Trump administration with unease

Despite signs of continuity in US policy, the risk of surprise remains

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during a working session at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973, the tendency among American foreign policy decision makers has been to pay relatively little attention to Southeast Asia compared to other regions, with the exception of counter-terrorism since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America in 2001. This is not to say that the U.S. has ignored the region, but rather that American policies and perspectives have highlighted ambivalence toward an area whose importance to core U.S. national interests remains a subject of debate in Washington.

Consequently, former U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to predicate his "pivot to Asia" strategy on deepening engagement with Southeast Asia was widely welcomed in the region. Now, however, the state of U.S. relations has been thrown into uncertainty with indications that President Donald Trump seems determined to reverse many aspects of his predecessor's foreign policy.

Such concerns, however, appear to be overblown -- even as they hold powerful lessons for regional leaders. Judging by the Trump administration's diplomatic and security policy on the wider East Asia region, which in American foreign policy thinking includes Southeast Asia, some measure of continuity can be discerned.

Trump, for example, met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the recent Group of 20 summit in Hamburg and both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening longstanding ties. He also met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and was invited to visit the country in one of the friendlier meetings for the U.S. president during the global event -- in contrast to the frosty reception by other world leaders. Widodo told Trump he had "millions of fans in Indonesia."

Initial demands by the Trump administration for regional allies to shoulder a greater share of the defense burden have given way to more reassuring language. While Trump continues to harp on the need for greater burden-sharing in Europe, he has spoken less about this when it comes to East Asia. This may reflect increased awareness about Japan's contribution to supporting American troops on its soil as well as the escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Other evidence also suggests continuity. The conduct of freedom-of-navigation operations and fly-bys by the U.S. military in the South China Sea, a carryover from the Obama administration, has been mostly welcomed. These exercises are a crucial, if imperfect, sign of strategic deterrence against excessive militarization of territory in the South China Sea by claimant states. They also represent an important reinforcement of international law.

Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Indonesia in April, the first by a member of the Trump cabinet to Southeast Asia, sent positive signals, as did his confirmation that Trump would attend three important regional meetings in November. In fact, many regional observers were surprised that the administration was prepared to confirm the president's participation in the East Asia Summit, the annual gathering of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders with international counterparts including the U.S., and an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting so early in his administration.

Pence's Asian swing was followed by the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who spoke at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June. His address contained all the usual assurances of U.S. support, with the notable omission of any mention of American leadership in Asia. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for his part hosted ASEAN foreign ministers in Washington in May, and is expected to visit the region before the November summitry.

Short attention span

Even so, the Trump administration is unlikely to devote anything close to the amount of attention Obama gave to Southeast Asia during the halcyon days of his presidency, when he visited nine of the 10 ASEAN member states and frequently attended regional meetings. In contrast to the flurry of activity during the Obama years, exchanges and engagement between senior administration officials (that is, at sub-cabinet and National Security Council level) and their Southeast Asian counterparts has thus far been sporadic and mostly limited to counterterrorism.

This is also clear from the administration's approach to trade and economic policy. If the security and diplomatic side of the ledger inspires confidence, or at least relief, uncertainty remains concerning economic issues. Trump's order to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while offering no alternative Plan B, continues to smart.

Instead, the administration is repeatedly stressing that it is only interested in bilateral negotiations and is averse to multilateral trade negotiations, apparently in fear that the U.S. will be "taken advantage of" as other nations "gang up on it." The reasoning is flawed, but this will be the defining feature that regional states will have to confront when they deal with the U.S. on economic and trade issues for the foreseeable future. They will have to adjust their postures and approaches accordingly.

Ultimately, however, any attempt to determine where Trump administration policy is heading on Southeast Asia must take into account the prevailing political and decision-making context that shapes foreign policy in the U.S. today. This could potentially create a different perspective on things. There are two crucial factors in this regard.

First, the president is given to associative rather than linear thinking and that can lead to policy unpredictability. This has already been seen in the changes in China policy over the last few months. During the presidential campaign, Trump resorted to harsh anti-Chinese rhetoric and accused Beijing of being responsible for the economic plight of the average American worker.

Later, there was the drama surrounding the phone call that Trump conducted with the pro-independence president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and his subsequent suggestion that the "One China" policy could be reconsidered. But following Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi-Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April, Sino-U.S. relations seemed to be on the mend as Trump reportedly said with spectacular aplomb: "I like him and I believe he likes me a lot."

Since then, the two presidents are said to be speaking regularly. On Trump's part, his optimism was based on a mistaken belief that Beijing was prepared to impose tough economic sanctions on North Korea to curb its nuclear and missile program. The fact that Beijing was unable to "deliver" exposed Trump's naivete and Sino-U.S. relations have turned yet another corner.

'Tough man' display

In the last few weeks, the Trump administration has approved a $1.4 billion arms sale deal to Taiwan, imposed selective sanctions on some Chinese entities doing business with North Korea, and has relegated China to the lowest tier in the U.S. State Department's annual report on human trafficking. Whether or not these moves were in response to China's inaction on North Korea, the key point is that unpredictability is a double-edged sword. It can prompt a downturn in relations just as easily as improving them in a relatively short period of time.

Second, the U.S. remains in the throes of a protracted political conflict and this will likely stymie decision-making for months, even years, ahead. Trump came to power riding a wave of popular discontent. It was a team of ideological revolutionaries, led by chief Trump adviser Steve Bannon and his allies, who helped create this wave. The "deconstruct Washington" movement they have led and ensconced in the White House has contributed in part to the slow pace of nominations and appointments at the sub-cabinet and agency level, which is affecting governance.

The ideological posturing by these revolutionaries runs counter to the mainstream outlook represented by the national security team in the U.S. cabinet and National Security Council. Although mainstream views also enjoy the support of the congressional leadership, it remains unclear to what extent their views on foreign and security policies will influence Trump. Meanwhile, decision-makers must also take into account the nebulous roles the president has given to outsiders and associates including members of his own family.

Internal disagreements and differences of opinion are par for the course in any government. Yet the stark reality is that for the Trump administration, these disputes are particularly intense and acrimonious. They will have a deleterious effect on the formulation and implementation of a coherent, thoughtful and measured foreign policy required to demonstrate American leadership in an age of growing uncertainty.

To deal with this uncertainty, Southeast Asia must accelerate its efforts at fostering further integration through ASEAN. A united ASEAN is more crucial to the smaller states of Southeast Asia than ever before, as they navigate the waters of great power politics in the wake of an increasingly assertive China and ambivalent U.S.

Second, the group's relations with regional powers such as India, Japan, and Australia must be enhanced in order to create important "strategic space" for maneuver. Finally, notwithstanding the vagaries of American decision-making and policy toward Southeast Asia, regional states must continue their own initiatives to engage the U.S. Given the associative nature of statecraft with the Trump administration, this would entail engagement through both formal as well as informal channels.

Joseph Chinyong Liow is dean and professor of comparative and international politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

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