April 23, 2017 6:10 pm JST
Kavi Chongkittavorn

Pence puts Trump administration on right foot with ASEAN

News of presidential visit to regional summits in November sends positive signal to Asia

During his week-long trip to four major Asia-Pacific countries, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a strong message of a continued U.S. security commitment to the region and a firm stance on trade issues in line with U.S. President Donald Trump's priorities.

Regional security concerns dominated his talks in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia amid heightened fears over the North Korean nuclear threat. But Pence also dashed Japan's hopes on the trade front, telling Tokyo that the U.S. would not reverse its earlier decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. In Australia, Pence pledged that the U.S. would honor its refugee deal with Canberra despite Trump's initial hostility to the agreement, conveyed in his early February phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

But Pence may have made his biggest impact in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population and an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, when he made the surprise announcement that Trump will attend three important regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines in November.

That was an unexpected development since Trump has focused primarily on North Korea and China when it comes to Asian issues, and has shown little or no interest in ASEAN in his famous tweets and public comments. Pence said Trump's planned visits to Southeast Asia reflected the value of the U.S.-ASEAN strategic alliance and the importance of Asia as a whole.

The challenge for ASEAN leaders now is to determine whether U.S. policy toward the region under Trump will prove disruptive given the president's impulsive behavior at times. It was noteworthy that Pence managed to praise the improved relations between the U.S. and Southeast Asia over the past few years without once giving any credit to former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama was instrumental in revitalizing U.S.-ASEAN relations, particularly during his second term, as part of his administration's "pivot" toward Asia. The Obama administration was the driving force behind TPP, while it normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar and conducted naval exercises to guarantee freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea.

On U.S.-ASEAN relations, Trump appears to be willing to follow the same path as his predecessor -- despite uprooting most of Obama's legacy in key areas of both domestic and foreign policy.

Three key tests

Three aspects of Trump's upcoming trip to Asia in November will be closely watched. First will be his interaction with ASEAN leaders when they meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation annual forum in Vietnam, and then straight after at the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summits in the Philippines.

ASEAN leaders come from diverse backgrounds, including royalty, civilian politicians, communist party leaders and military generals. Indonesian President Joko Widodo is the only one with a business background, although his earlier career as a furniture manufacturer is more modest than that of Trump's.

Personal rapport will determine whether Trump is prepared to host future gatherings of ASEAN leaders in the U.S. Obama used his close ties with ASEAN leaders to persuade them to attend a special meeting at the Sunnylands resort in California in February 2016 without going through the usual complex and tedious diplomatic arrangements. When Obama issued personal invitations for the summit, ASEAN leaders agreed without hesitation.

Second, attention will focus on the future of U.S.-ASEAN economic ties. Trump's decision to withdraw from the TPP left a bitter taste and a sense of betrayal within ASEAN. Pence tried to address this issue when he spoke at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta by saying that nearly 42,000 U.S. companies export $100 billion worth of goods and services to ASEAN annually, which helps provide more than 550,000 jobs in the U.S.

Pence also stressed that the total amount of U.S. investment in ASEAN amounted to $274 billion as of last year, which is bigger than American investment in China, India and Japan combined.

But Pence did not mention how the U.S. intends to treat four ASEAN countries -- Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, that it has labeled as "trade cheats" and which had a combined trade surplus with the U.S. of $90 billion last year.

Finally, the Trump administration's efforts to strengthen its relations with ASEAN will likely rest on increased cooperation on regional security, which Pence said Washington wants to "redouble." This would include counterterrorism, increased information exchanges and cyber security cooperation. Other global challenges such as climate change, human trafficking and sustainable development are likely to take a back seat under Trump.

However, the Trump administration is likely to be less aggressive than the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with the South China Sea dispute. Washington will continue to uphold a rules-based order to ensure the lawful and unimpeded flow of commerce and to encourage a diplomatic resolution of the dispute, although Trump may not resort to the show of force in freedom of navigation operations that took place under Obama. This would reflect China's positive response to Trump's call for Beijing to increase pressure on North Korea.

The future of Trump's approach to ASEAN will also largely be determined by how his administration handles the people-to-people linkages fostered by the Obama administration. The fate of the popular youth leader exchange program, known as the Young South Asian Leaders Initiative, is in limbo. This would affect more than 60,000 young leaders from ASEAN and the U.S.

The fact that Trump's November trip was announced before the scheduled 30th ASEAN summit on April 29 in Manila is meant to mitigate any doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region when it is confronting such issues as the North Korean nuclear crisis and South China Sea dispute.

ASEAN foreign ministers are scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington D.C. in early May. After the vice president's encouraging signals in his inaugural Asian swing, this will be a vital first test for the future "unprecedented" relations between the U.S. and ASEAN, as described by Pence.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based commentator and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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