On the Oc­ca­sion of 69th Repub­lic Day of In­dia

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Front Page - KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN news­room@mm­times.com

WHEN Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­cided to at­tend the East Asia Sum­mit (EAS) last Novem­ber, the ASEAN chair, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, was elated. How­ever, roughly 56 hours after Trump’s ar­rival to par­tic­i­pate in a se­ries of meet­ings in Manila, the chair shud­dered as the No.1 guest de­cided to leave early with­out at­tend­ing the 12th EAS, the group’s most ex­clu­sive, lead­ers-only strate­gic fo­rum.

In lo­cal cul­ture, Trump’s ac­tion was con­sid­ered rude and undiplo­matic. Since then, the sense of re­al­ism and awk­ward­ness re­lated to “Amer­ica First” diplo­macy and Trump’s idio­syn­cra­sies have quickly be­come part of the fab­ric of ASEAN’S at­ti­tude to­ward the US – ex­pect the un­ex­pected and the un­pre­dictable.

Trump’s ap­proach to ASEAN in his first year de­ci­sively ze­roed in on trade and North Korea. Push­ing for fair trade, as he called it, the pres­i­dent has been quite suc­cess­ful in re­duc­ing the trade deficits his coun­try has long suf­fered with ASEAN’S ma­jor economies, in­clud­ing Thai­land. He knows ex­actly what but­tons to push to make his friends or foes jump with joy or scream with pain. Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull out of the Trans-pa­cific Part­ner­ship was a good ex­am­ple, as it shocked the socks off the TPP sig­na­to­ries from ASEAN.

To his sup­port­ers back home, Trump has done a mar­vel­lous job of bring­ing back US in­vest­ment, in­creas­ing jobs and expanding US ex­ports to Asia. While the US eco­nomic pres­sure on ASEAN coun­tries is enor­mous, the group has been able – due to ris­ing in­come and con­tin­ued eco­nomic growth – to ful­fil ur­gent de­mands to re­duce trade deficits.

Key ASEAN mem­bers Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land, Malaysia and Viet­nam have pledged ei­ther to in­vest more in Amer­ica or im­port more, in­clud­ing by pur­chas­ing com­mer­cial planes and arms. Fu­ture in­vest­ment from these na­tions will cre­ate more than 20,000 jobs in Amer­ica’s Rust Belt.

How­ever, po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity mat­ters ad­vo­cated by Trump’s poli­cies and ap­proach are more prob­lem­atic for the re­gion. Deep down, he wants ASEAN to choose sides. Un­re­al­is­ti­cally he also wants the re­gion to stand up, con­tain and man­age China’s rise. It is clear that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will com­pete with China to main­tain US in­flu­ence. Washington iden­ti­fies both China and Rus­sia as threats, and it is on the look­out for gen­uine al­lies and friends to help out.

In­deed, the US fo­cus on the North Korean cri­sis is a good ex­am­ple. First, the cri­sis de­rives from the US con­cern about the grow­ing ca­pac­ity of Py­ongyang’s in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­siles to reach the US main­land – some­thing that was a fairy tale a few years ago. Washington wants friends and al­lies in Asia, es­pe­cially ASEAN, to be part of a “coalition of the will­ing” to fur­ther iso­late North Korea, which will di­rectly im­pact China’s cur­rent po­si­tion on the Korean Penin­sula.

While the US con­tin­ues to ad­vo­cate free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and over­flight in the South China Sea, it has shifted its fo­cus to main­land Asia, where US se­cu­rity is at stake. The on­go­ing South China Sea dis­pute is now in the hands of con­flict­ing par­ties to work out on their own, and ASEAN and China are ex­pected to agree on a ten­ta­tive code of con­duct for the area soon.

Sec­ond, North Korea’s bur­geon­ing nu­clear ca­pac­ity will re­main high on Trump’s agenda in his sec­ond year, and ASEAN has to be ready to re­spond, as the loom­ing threat could drive a wedge into the group. At the 20-na­tion min­is­te­rial meet­ing in Van­cou­ver ear­lier this month, it was clear that the US and Canada wanted to fur­ther in­crease diplo­matic pres­sure on North Korea, which di­rectly af­fects ASEAN.

Thai­land, as one of 16 coun­tries that sent troops to the 1950-53 Korean War, has been co­op­er­a­tive but cau­tious. Bangkok sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the am­bas­sado­rial in­stead of min­is­te­rial level as promised ear­lier, to share Thai­land’s ex­pe­ri­ence im­ple­ment­ing sanc­tions man­dated by UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions. Al­though China and the US are work­ing to­gether on the sanc­tions, Bei­jing does not want to see the US take a prom­i­nent role with­out its in­clu­sion.

At the Van­cou­ver meet­ing, the US, Canada and Ja­pan adopted a pol­icy of “max­i­mum pres­sure” to fur­ther iso­late North Korea. The West wants ASEAN to down­grade ties with Py­ongyang as much as pos­si­ble, as quite a few of its mem­bers still main­tain good re­la­tions with Py­ongyang.

Be­yond trade and North Korea, Trump has no clue about ASEAN. He did not bother to name a US en­voy to ASEAN nor sup­port the wellestab­lished young lead­er­ship, so­cial and cul­tural pro­grammes ini­ti­ated by for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tinue to en­gage with Thai­land, one of five key al­lies in the re­gion, with ex­pe­di­ency and flex­i­bil­ity. He places a high value on Thai­land and – de­spite the King­dom’s less than im­pres­sive hu­man rights record – de­cided to nor­malise ties, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion down­graded after the 2014 coup.

The an­nual Cobra Gold mil­i­tary ex­er­cises sched­uled for mid-fe­bru­ary will now be a dis­play of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary might, and in­ter­na­tional mil­i­tary net­work­ing and in­ter­op­er­abil­ity. It will also serve as a barom­e­ter of how the US will treat and rein­vent its al­liance with Thai­land. This year’s ex­er­cises will in­volve more than 14,000 troops, mainly from Thai­land and the US, the largest num­ber in the 35-year his­tory of the event. Given the ten­sions on the Korean Penin­sula, the am­phibi­ous as­saults with live-fire am­mu­ni­tion and mas­sive non-com­bat­ant evac­u­a­tion that will be the cen­tre­piece of the ex­er­cises are no co­in­ci­dence. It is also highly likely that In­dia will join the ex­er­cises next year as part of the new se­cu­rity align­ment un­der the Indo-pa­cific frame­work.

This year is also special be­cause it is the 200th an­niver­sary of ThaiUS friend­ship, with ex­trav­a­gant cer­e­monies tak­ing place in March. In the first let­ter be­tween Amer­i­can and Thai lead­ers – a cor­re­spon­dence be­tween fifth US Pres­i­dent James Mon­roe and Dit Bun­nag, Phraya Klang (min­is­ter of fi­nance and for­eign min­is­ter) in 1818 – the US pres­i­dent signed off by call­ing Siam (Thai­land’s for­mer name) a “great and good friend”.

It re­mains to be seen whether this old-fash­ioned but gen­uine sen­ti­ment will sur­vive through the re­main­ing years of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

– Bangkok Post

Be­yond trade and North Korea, Trump has no clue about ASEAN. He did not bother to name a US en­voy to ASEAN...

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