US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam from Beijing Airport in Beijing, China, November 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam from Beijing Airport in Beijing, China, November 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

When US President Donald Trump lands in Manila for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit, his diplomatic mission could not be more urgent. America’s decades-long leadership in Asia faces its most severe test since the end of World War II, with a plethora of security challenges threatening one of the world’s most prosperous regions.

Under Trump, the US has suffered a decline in its once deep reservoir of soft power, including as a global champion of democracy and human rights. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey covering 37 countries, global confidence in US leadership declined from an average of 64% under former President Barack Obama to just around 22% under Trump.

America’s prestige and influence is in decline particularly among its allies. In South Korea and Japan, the US has suffered a 71% and 54% favorability rating decline, according to Pew. Among emerging powers like Indonesia, the largest nation in Southeast Asia and the world’s third largest democracy, America experienced a 41% decline from Obama to Trump.

Meanwhile China has stepped up its efforts to woo the region through aid and investment, including large-scale infrastructure projects in its Belt and Road Initiative. China also aims to channel its newfound wealth and influence in the region through newly created institutions such as the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Trump’s administration, in contrast, has launched an increasingly unilateral, isolationist “America first” agenda which has alienated allies and rivals alike. The American president’s decision to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade pact, followed up by threats of punitive trade measures against certain Asian nations, has reinforced lingering anxieties about his commitment to the global liberal order.

Cargo ships are loaded with containers in Bangkok, Thailand, March 25, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Southeast Asian nations have looked on with trepidation as the US and North Korea have traded sensational threats of nuclear annihilation. As Pyongyang nears the threshold of developing nuclear missiles capable of hitting mainland America, Trump has repeatedly warned of pre-emptive strikes, if not total war. A conflict would be devastating to the relative peace that underpins the region’s economic prosperity.

Allies Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, are debating whether to develop their own nuclear deterrents – a development that would have wide-reaching implications for the region. Trump now faces the uphill battle of assuring regional partners of US security commitments in the event of war, on one hand, and his willingness to de-escalate tensions in favor of peaceful management, if not resolution, of the crisis, on the other.

Trump’s thinly veiled brinkmanship with China, now widely viewed as Southeast Asia’s top economic patron, has failed to produce the desired result, whether on North Korea or trade and investment concerns. If anything, China’s leaders have been under pressure to project strength and independence amid an onslaught of criticism from the White House. The two sides, however, played nice during Trump’s just concluded visit to Beijing.

Trump thus faces a major conundrum on his tour of Southeast Asia, where he will have attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam before participating in the Asean summit in Manila. Trump’s preference for bilateral exchanges to multinational approaches will put his personal diplomacy to a test at both events.

At APEC’s CEO summit, a multilateral free trade promotion venue, Trump announced his willingness to do a bilateral trade deal with any nation based on “mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

US President Donald Trump speaks on the need for equal trade at APEC’s CEO Summit in Danang, Vietnam, November 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Anthony Wallace/Pool

Vietnam and other regional states including Japan, Australia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia have all been irked by Trump’s abandonment of TPP, tirades against supposedly ‘unequal’ trade and emphasis on ‘onshoring’ American investments made abroad.

Trump will have to reassure the Asia-Pacific region that America will remain a major economic force despite his protectionist rhetoric and amid China’s emergence as the region’s dominant economy. It’s not immediately clear what economic incentives the US could provide to Asean that would financially compete with China’s rich offerings.

In Manila, Trump is expected to hold bilateral meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, including the Philippines’ controversial president and Asean host Rodrigo Duterte. The two populist leaders have repeatedly praised each other in recent months, held apparently cordial conversations by phone, and are expected to hold a convivial hobnob on the sidelines of the event.

Trump is also expected to raise the North Korean issue with Asean leaders, including Duterte, in hopes of tightening international sanctions against the reclusive regime. The Philippines has already suspended its limited trade with Pyongyang, while other Southeast Asian leaders are gradually downgrading their strategic and economic ties to the isolated regime.

Given Trump’s failure to secure any major concession from China on the issue during his meetings in Beijing, Asean’s buy-in has become ever more crucial to Trump’s efforts to economically isolate North Norea.

Two US Air Force B-1B bombers fly over the South China Sea while operating with the destroyer USS Sterett. Photo: US Air Force/Richard Ebensberger

The other area of strategic concern is the South China Sea, where the US Navy has started to conduct more regularized Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims in the maritime region.

Southeast Asian claimant states, particularly Vietnam, are perturbed by Beijing’s expansive reclamation activities and increasingly overt militarization of the features it controls. Even Duterte, who has shunned openly confronting China on the issue as Asean’s rotating chairman, has promised to raise the issue in his bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Behind the scenes, Asean claimant states, including the Philippines, prefer to outsource containment of China’s maritime ambitions in adjacent waters to America, fearing the consequences of and lacking the requisite naval capacity to directly stand up to Beijing themselves.

Still, the Filipino leader has shown little interest in rolling back his increasingly pro-China policy and preference for closer ties with America’s other rivals, including Russia. Moreover, an overly exuberant embrace of Duterte by Trump will likely provoke a backlash in Washington, including among prominent fellow Republican Party members who have criticized the leader’s bloody drug war.

Trump’s biggest challenge, however, will be overcoming doubts about his political capital due to his dismal popularity ratings at home, not to mention ongoing investigations against his close aides for facilitating alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election. When Trump lands in Manila, America will never have been viewed as so unreliable and adrift in the eyes of its regional allies.

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