Donald Trump on a telephone before playing a round of golf in a 2013 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Innerarity

When US President Donald Trump called his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, a cordial April 29 conversation punctuated with an invitation to visit the White House, the high-level outreach represented the clearest sign yet that Trump’s administration aims to stay strategically engaged with America’s erstwhile Southeast Asian allies.

The following day Trump made similar calls to Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan—ocha and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to likewise invite them to visit the White House. No dates have been set for the official visits, which have been predictably criticized by rights groups and media commentators for coddling dictators.

US officials said the calls keyed on ways to put diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea as tensions mount on the Korean peninsula. Some analysts interpreted the calls as Trump’s bid to build a “coalition of the willing” to counter Pyongyang, akin to former President George W. Bush’s diplomacy before invading Iraq in 2003.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) at a performance held for participants of the ruling party in Pyongyang released on December 29, 2016. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

All three Southeast Asian nations have certain degrees of leverage over North Korea. The Philippines was North Korea’s third largest trade partner last year, according to the International Trade Center (ITC), a subsidiary of the World Trade Organization. Still, bilateral trade was a mere US$87 million, less than 2% of China’s trade with Pyongyang. 

North Korea imported US$46 million worth of goods from Thailand last year, mostly commodities, putting Thailand among the world’s top four global exporters to the isolated country, according to ITC statistics. Since 2009, Loxley Pacific, a Thai telecom company, has helped to build North Korea’s internet infrastructure in a joint venture with the government.

It was not clear if Trump pressed Duterte or Prayuth to curb future trade with Pyongyang, though diplomatic observers believe it likely. One Bangkok-based diplomat familiar with the situation said Prayuth’s conversation with Trump, where the elected president praised his military counterpart’s strong leadership, focused on North Korea issues for six minutes of their nine-minute conversation.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures in a traditional greeting as he arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Thai junta officials hailed the call as a welcome shift away from the previous Barack Obama administration’s hard focus on democracy and rights, a diplomatic stance that has crimped ties since the military seized power in May 2014. It was not clear that the US Embassy in Bangkok was aware of or that the State Department prepared Trump for his call with Prayuth. 

Singapore, Southeast Asia’s financial hub, would also potentially serve a key role if Washington moves to impose so-called “secondary sanctions” against Pyongyang, punitive measures that would cut access to America’s financial system for banks and companies found to conduct financial transactions with North Korea.

Along with China, Hong Kong and Macau, Singapore is “where Pyongyang has often gone to hide the true nature of its banking activities, and to pay for missiles, nuclear fuel and the huge infrastructure it has built around those programs,” the New York Times reported in February. If so, it’s unclear how much North Korea’s leadership holds in liquid and potentially frozen assets in Singapore.

People pass the skyline of the central business district of Singapore August 8, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

While the focus of Trump calls was on North Korea, some wonder if the proposed one-on-one leader visits to Washington will give Trump the opportunity to more clearly define his diplomacy towards the strategic region. Obama built strong ties with several Southeast Asian leaders in pursuit of his ‘pivot’ policy, an economic-strategic gambit that aimed chiefly to counter China’s rising regional influence.

Trump officials have downplayed the pivot as simplistic “slogan” diplomacy, but have not yet indicated how their approach may differ. With Trump’s withdrawal from Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade initiative and probes underway into several Southeast Asian nations’ trade practices, many fear Trump could take a confrontational rather than strategic approach towards the region.

Those concerns lifted somewhat with Trump’s recent overtures, including the personalized and decidedly upbeat phone calls. Last month, White House officials said Trump plans to attend the East Asia Summit and next Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, both of which will be held in November in the Philippines.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after signing it at the White House on January 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Saul Loeb

He has also committed to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam in November, which analysts say has placated Hanoi somewhat after Trump withdrew from TPP. Vietnam, which also has a communist legacy relationship with North Korea, would have been the top beneficiary of the multilateral pact in terms of trade-driven faster economic growth. 

But if Trump is taking a different tack from Obama’s pivot, how will China fit into the strategic shift? While White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump’s calls to the three Southeast Asian nations concerned “isolating North Korea”, some sensed a parallel bid to reaffirm wobbly alliances and regain strategic ground lost to China, including while the US was consumed in last year’s election cycle.

The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are historically America’s strongest regional allies. Both Manila and Bangkok have drifted towards China in defensive response to the Obama administration’s strong and consistent criticism of their rights records. While both Duterte and Prayuth took Trump’s call, it’s unclear how easily, if at all, either could be coaxed away from China and back towards the US.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers during a visit to a Chinese naval ship in Davao city, Philippines, May 1, 2017. Photo: China Daily/via Reuters

Prayuth’s military regime, spearheaded by defense minister and junta No. 2 General Prawit Wongsuwan, has upped its strategic engagement with China since the 2014 coup. The trend was capped by the recent decision to purchase China-made submarines and jointly produce weapons in Thailand.

While US officials lobbied Bangkok to take a strong stand on the South China Sea at last weekend’s Asean summit, it is not to clear to diplomats who monitored the meeting that Prayuth obliged behind closed doors. 

For his part, Duterte said he may not take up Trump’s invitation due to conflicting travels, including a planned trip to Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping followed on Trump’s call to Duterte on May 3, in what some analysts saw as a thank you call for steering Asean away from making a strong joint statement that mentioned its militarization and island-building in the South China Sea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

It is notable that Trump has not openly moved to engage Malaysia and Cambodia, two regional nations that have grown particularly close to China in recent years, both economically and strategically. US relations with Cambodia have arguably hit a new nadir on disputes over historic debts and development aid, resulting in Phnom Penh’s abrupt cancellation in January of a planned joint military drill.

Nor has Trump reached to Myanmar, traditionally North Korea’s closest regional ally. North Korean technicians were instrumental in building tunnels under and around the military’s new capital at Naypyidaw, and the two sides have cooperated previously on missile development. Obama insisted Naypyidaw sever ties to Pyongyang to restore relations with the US, but it’s not clear the military has obliged.

While Trump may bid to pivot in his own inimitable way back towards Southeast Asia, nominally to isolate North Korea and quietly to counter China, it’s not clear yet the region’s leaders are prepared or willing to shift back to him. 

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