President Trump speaks in the Oval Office in February.
Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm
President Trump speaks in the Oval Office in February. Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm

Days before the US presidential election in November, two of Donald Trump’s Asia advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, published an article in Foreign Policy laying out the Republican candidate’s stance on the region.

Trump would never “sacrifice the US economy on the altar of foreign policy,” they wrote, and peace would be maintained “through strength.” Today, after six months in office, this largely seems to be the case.

President Trump has irked some Asian partners by reneging on free-trade agreements, which he believes are averse to US interests, and has taken an especially hawkish position on North Korea.

Aside from these grandstanding events, however, there has been a noticeable shift in his policy in recent months towards more nuanced relations with Asian nations, particularly those in Southeast Asia.

The region did not appear on the administration’s radar until April. That month Vice President Mike Pence visited Indonesia and the offices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The same month Trump made personal phone calls to the leaders of Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand, inviting them to the White House for visits. The latter two nations had tense relations with America in recent years under previous President Barack Obama over rights issues.

Days later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the ten Asean foreign ministers in Washington. In late May, Trump welcomed the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, to the White House, the first Southeast Asian leader to meet one-on-one with Trump. The US President is also expected to attend a number of regional summits later in the year.

President Donald Trump welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to  the White House on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/ Cheriss May

Naturally, any incoming president will be judged against the record of their predecessor. And arguably no other US leader since the 1970s had engaged with Southeast Asia as intimately as Obama, who underscored his focus on the region with his much vaunted “pivot” to Asia policy.

Commentators remain divided over whether Obama’s Asian rebalance – as the policy was also known – was a success or failure. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, has described gambit as “shallow and unreliable”, and the Obama administration of having “walked loudly but carried a meek stick.”

Critics of Obama’s pivot also say it meant the US took the eye off the ball in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, because of US inaction after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Obama’s failure to take measures over his “red line” in Syria, the State Department has had to refocus its efforts globally, necessarily meaning less attention for Southeast Asia.

Perhaps the greatest indication of the pivot’s fragility was how quickly some of its touted accomplishments were undone. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade pact was set to define Obama’s economic legacy, despite the fact that it was first planned during the George W Bush administration.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with then US President Barack Obama during a meeting at the White House on September 14, 2016. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

Trump’s decision to nix the free trade agreement on his first day in office was seen by many as a sign of the new administration’s renegation of commitment to Southeast Asia.

Analysts and politicians, especially those from TPP signatory nations like Singapore, bemoaned Trump’s decision as giving Beijing carte blanche to set the region’s economic agenda and direction, ostensibly though the Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, another Beijing-steered multilateral free-trade agreement.

Often overlooked, however, is the fact that only four out of the 11 Southeast Asian nations were TPP signatories. Some not party to the agreement rejoiced in its demise. “I can honestly say that I want the TPP to die,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in March.

It should also be remembered that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, also promised on the campaign trail to scrap TPP.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Another cornerstone of Obama’s pivot was security, including a vow to reposition 60% of American’s naval assets to Asia. Although American officials publicly denied it, the move was seen by many as a bid to counter China’s rising assertiveness, especially in the contested South China Sea.

Despite American assurances, however, Beijing has militarized islands and features in the waters, rendering the security rationale of Obama’s pivot by some measures ineffective.

Indeed, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who clashed with Obama and has embraced Beijing, might not have been blustering when he said earlier this year that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”

Upon taking office, Trump’s Asia team faced the challenge of how to smooth America’s broken relationships – especially with the Philippines and Thailand, its historic allies – and how to engage with a region that even before his nomination was tilting heavily towards China.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

Following Thailand’s 2014 military coup, Obama’s administration suspended some military training and aid, and was vocal about the deterioration of democracy and human rights under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s heavy-handed rule.

While some commentators believe Obama was not tough enough on Bangkok – by continuing to engage in the annual “Cobra Gold” military exercise, for example – others argued that his confrontational stance allowed Beijing to fill the void left by America’s disengagement, seen in a flurry of bilateral military exchanges and weapons deals.

A similar problem arose because of Duterte’s controversial drug war in the Philippines, which has now left more than 8,000 dead. After Obama criticized the extrajudicial killings, Duterte responded last September by crudely referring to his counterpart a “son of a whore” and swiftly started to switch his country’s foreign policy towards China.

Trump’s decision to telephone Duterte in late April and invite him to Washington was predictably criticized by human rights groups as coddling a dictator. Yet some analysts have detected a warming of relations between the two countries since.

Representatives met this month to discuss a possible bilateral free-trade agreement and ongoing assistance by US Special Forces in fighting Islamic State-linked militants in Marawi City has been effusively praised by Duterte.

US military forces cross a flooded area during annual Philippines-US amphibious landing exercises (PHIBLEX) in Zambales province, Philippines October 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

“Let us give credit where credit is due. The United States helped the Armed Forces in this fight,” he said in a recent speech, adding that his government will uphold the 66-year-old Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

Clearly, the Trump administration is willing to overlook rights abuses and engage the with region’s many autocratic leaders. Indeed, top diplomat Tillerson told State Department employees in May that focusing on values like human rights “creates obstacles [in] our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

Some pundits thus believe that the Trump administration will mirror Beijing’s approach towards the region by engaging and providing assistance to nations with no strings attached on issues such as rights or governance.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

There are plenty of voices in Washington promoting such a line. Anthony Woon Cho, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, an influential think-tank, recently wrote that America must “adopt a more pragmatic approach and prioritize security and economic engagement with Thailand before this alliance… begins to fray.”

While some commentators see this as a move away from Obama’s rhetorical insistence on human rights, there is a counterargument that the former president was also inconsistent on the matter.

At the same time Washington was rebuking Bangkok for the 2014 coup, it was dramatically improving ties with Vietnam, the most vocal opponent of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea and one of the region’s worst human rights violators.

Activists in Hanoi, for instance, are equally critical of Trump as Obama for failing to put human rights above economics and geopolitics.

Vietnamese Americans protest outside the White House before US President Donald Trump’s met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

But Trump has largely continued Obama’s strong engagement with Vietnam. Despite scrapping TPP, which if enacted would have immensely boosted the nominally communist nation’s trade, Phuc’s visit to the White House demonstrated that Hanoi is still America’s keenest ally in the region.

Phuc’s visit saw the signing of billions of dollars’ worth of trade deals, nominally to help address a yawning trade imbalance that favors Vietnam, all without any meaningful mention of human rights or democracy by Trump.

Some pundits believe the Trump administration will mirror Beijing’s approach towards the region by engaging and providing assistance to nations with no strings attached on issues such as rights or governance.

None of this is to say that the US president has a clear overarching framework to work towards in Southeast Asia. That said, it should not be forgotten that Obama’s pivot policy was only formulated in late 2011, after three years in office.

The situation has been hindered by a dearth of Southeast Asian experts in the State Department, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a regional pundit at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. “Southeast Asian officials in Washington are often at a loss as to who to even meet in the new administration in order to make contacts and discuss economic and strategic issues,” he recently wrote.

The region is now radically different from when Obama first announced his pivot in late 2011, with many nations increasingly leaning towards China for economic sustenance and new investments.

Time will thus tell whether Trump’s emerging realpolitik diplomacy pays US dividends in Southeast Asia, or if an ultimately disengaged America pushes the region even more firmly into China’s orbit.

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