South­east Asia ques­tions US ties af­ter Trump win

The Myanmar Times - - News - LE HONG HIEP news­room@mm­times.com

WITH his shock­ing vic­tory in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Don­ald Trump has made his­tory – and made a lot of peo­ple very afraid. In fact, his rise threat­ens to in­cite a revo­lu­tion that shakes the foun­da­tions not only of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, but also of global peace and pros­per­ity. One re­gion that is likely to start feel­ing tremors soon is South­east Asia.

Through­out his cam­paign, Trump es­poused an “Amer­ica first” world­view, em­pha­sis­ing that he would fol­low through on US in­ter­na­tional com­mit­ments only when it suits him. This has rat­tled many a US ally and part­ner, in­clud­ing the coun­tries of South­east Asia, which fear that they will be all but ig­nored by a key guar­an­tor of sta­bil­ity in their neigh­bour­hood.

This would rep­re­sent a no­table re­ver­sal from the last eight years, dur­ing which Pres­i­dent Barack Obama made a con­certed ef­fort to deepen Amer­ica’s ties with South­east Asia. Un­der Obama’s stew­ard­ship, the US ac­ceded to the Treaty of Amity and Co­op­er­a­tion in South­east Asia, and joined the East Asia Sum­mit.

More­over, in 2013, the US be­came the first ASEAN di­a­logue part­ner to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent mis­sion to the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Last year, the coun­try forged a strate­gic part­ner­ship with ASEAN. And, ear­lier this year, Obama hosted the first US-ASEAN sum­mit on Amer­i­can soil. Obama also brought four ASEAN mem­bers into the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), a mega-re­gional trade deal that would pro­mote US eco­nomic ex­change with the re­gion.

Obama also helped to ce­ment bi­lat­eral ties with most coun­tries in the re­gion, vis­it­ing nine out of 10 dur­ing his two terms in of­fice. Had a US govern­ment shut­down not forced him to can­cel a trip to Brunei in 2013, he would have had a per­fect record.

To be sure, Amer­ica’s ties with Thai­land and the Philip­pines have de­te­ri­o­rated some­what dur­ing Obama’s sec­ond term, ow­ing to the US pres­i­dent’s crit­i­cism of vi­o­la­tions of demo­cratic norms and hu­man rights in both coun­tries. But that re­gres­sion has been more than off­set by progress in Amer­ica’s re­la­tion­ships with Indonesia, Laos, Myan­mar, Sin­ga­pore and es­pe­cially Viet­nam.

Obama’s ef­forts in South­east Asia were all part of his broader strate­gic “pivot” to Asia, an­nounced in 2011. Aimed at help­ing the US to main­tain its strate­gic pri­macy in the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion, the pol­icy has been qui­etly wel­comed by most re­gional ac­tors, as it dove­tails with their de­sire to check China’s hege­monic am­bi­tions in the re­gion.

All of this may be about to change. Trump is likely to fo­cus over­whelm­ingly on do­mes­tic is­sues, at the ex­pense of Amer­ica’s strate­gic in­ter­ests abroad. In­deed, he may well back away from strate­gic en­gage­ment with ASEAN and its mem­bers, caus­ing their re­la­tion­ships with the US to de­te­ri­o­rate. If he fails to show up at im­por­tant re­gional meet­ings like the East Asian Sum­mits, that de­te­ri­o­ra­tion will be­come even more pro­nounced.

Trump’s in­dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude will also hurt bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. To be sure, Malaysia, Thai­land and the Philip­pines may pre­fer a US pres­i­dent who does not trou­ble him­self to crit­i­cise their gov­ern­ments’ hu­man-rights abuses, cor­rup­tion or con­sti­tu­tional shenani­gans. But US re­la­tions with other coun­tries in the re­gion may stall, if not de­te­ri­o­rate, as con­fi­dence in Trump’s will­ing­ness to fol­low through on US com­mit­ments col­lapses.

Eco­nomic ties are also likely to suf­fer. Un­der Trump, who has re­vealed strong pro­tec­tion­ist ten­den­cies, the TPP will stay mori­bund, at best. The US-ASEAN Con­nect ini­tia­tive, which Obama pro­posed at the sum­mit ear­lier this year, and which aims to boost Amer­ica’s eco­nomic en­gage­ment with the re­gional group­ing, may also go nowhere.

It is not only South­east Asia that will suf­fer from Trump’s in­dif­fer­ence. Aus­tralia, In­dia, and Ja­pan – key US al­lies and se­cu­rity part­ners in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion – may also find it dif­fi­cult to con­nect with Trump, fur­ther un­der­min­ing faith in the USled re­gional se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture. The strate­gic re­bal­anc­ing to­ward Asia that Obama worked so hard to ad­vance may be thrown into re­verse, deal­ing a heavy blow to Asia and the US alike.

One Asian coun­try that may wel­come the elec­tion’s out­come is China. Al­though Trump has crit­i­cised China ex­ten­sively for sup­pos­edly steal­ing Amer­i­can jobs – and even blamed it for cre­at­ing the “hoax” of cli­mate change – he may take a softer stance on Chi­nese strate­gic ex­pan­sion­ism in the re­gion, es­pe­cially in the South China Sea, than Obama did.

In a far-fetched but not im­plau­si­ble sce­nario, Trump may even strike a deal with China over its ter­ri­to­rial claims, dis­re­gard­ing the in­ter­ests of US al­lies, from Ja­pan to the Philip­pines. Such a move would be par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing to per­cep­tions of Trump’s Amer­ica in South­east Asia.

The good news is that this out­come is not guar­an­teed. Cam­paign rhetoric is one thing; govern­ing is quite an­other. Once in the White House, a heav­ily ad­vised Trump may re­alise that main­tain­ing some con­ti­nu­ity in Amer­ica’s for­eign pol­icy, par­tic­u­larly in the Asia-Pa­cific, is more in line with US in­ter­ests than the al­ter­na­tive. If noth­ing else, Trump may re­sist the idea of China gain­ing strate­gic pri­macy in the re­gion.

For Trump, who made his ca­reer in real es­tate, per­haps the best way to look at it is in busi­ness terms. The US would be re­miss to squan­der all the sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment that his pre­de­ces­sor has made in South­east Asia. – Project Syn­di­cate

Le Hong Hiep is a fel­low at ISEAS - Yu­sof Ishak In­sti­tute, Sin­ga­pore, and author of the forth­com­ing book

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