On the Occasion of 69th Republic Day of India
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...