Will Trump take a stand on Southeast Asia?
US leader's visits to Da Nang, Hanoi and Manila will provide a platform to reassure regional leaders his government is committed to a region where China has stolen a march
The last time a sitting US president spent more than ten days on an Asia tour was in the early 1990s, when George H W Bush ended his circuit by vomiting and fainting in the lap of then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.
Aides to US President Donald Trump, whose 13-day tour includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, including appearances at two major summit meetings, will be hoping the 71-year-old leader doesn’t succumb to similar exhaustion and faux pas.
The sound and fury of the president’s first three stops will be the most important, given his administration’s focus on Northeast Asia, specifically the North Korea crisis, which remains his main foreign policy concern.
Once in Vietnam, however, Trump will get the opportunity to show Southeast Asian leaders that former US President Barack Obama’s administration’s “pivot”, or “rebalance”, policy towards Asia has not been wholly abandoned.
Southeast Asian premiers are already familiar with Trump. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first regional leader to visit Trump’s White House in May.
The premiers of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore later followed in separate bilateral visits to Washington. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been invited but has yet to taken up Trump’s offer, though the two leaders will meet later this week.
Trump has so far had nothing but nice things to say about his Southeast Asian counterparts.
Malaysia’s Najib Razak is his “favorite prime minister” despite the US Justice Department’s pursuit of charges related to alleged pilferage of some US$3.5 billion from a state development fund, the so-called 1MDB scandal, Najib created and until recently oversaw. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Duterte, meanwhile, is doing an “unbelievable job” in his war against drugs, which has now cost the lives of more than 7,000 people. Relations with Thailand’s rights-curbing junta, meanwhile, are strong and “getting stronger in the last nine months,” Trump said during coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s visit.
While human rights conditions are rapidly deteriorating in much of Southeast Asia, it’s unlikely that Trump will spend much time discussing the matter. Since his inauguration in January, the White House has been largely mute over human rights issues, leaving such matters to the State Department.
Analysts expect slightly more talk about rights from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who’s also touring Asia, including a visit to Myanmar, where he’s likely to discuss America’s response to the ongoing persecution of the displaced Muslim Rohingya population.
Trump’s Southeast Asia tour, including trips to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit to be held in Danang, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit to be staged in Manila, are expected to focus on major geopolitical disputes, including North Korea and the South China Sea, and trade.
Four Southeast Asian nations are signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a monumental free trade agreement that Trump withdrew America from in January. While the pact isn’t completely dead, it’s limited now without America’s markets.
Vietnam, which stood to gain the most trade-wise from TPP, has been proactive in making up for its demise. When Phuc visited Washington in May, he committed to curb Vietnam’s large trade deficit with America, which Trump warned without remedy will affect economic relations.
It is likely that when Trump visits Hanoi, the day after the Apec summit in Da Nang, improving US terms of trade vis-à-vis Vietnam will be his chief talking point. Vietnam enjoyed a US$29 billion trade surplus with Vietnam in 2016, according to Ministry of Industry and Trade statistics.
Analysts expect the finer points of America’s relationship with individual Southeast Asian nations will be discussed behind the scenes and one-on-one with each of the countries’ leaders.
Duterte, who will meet Trump in Vietnam before another private session in Manila, has promised to interact with the US leader “in the most righteous way,” a stark comparison to the Philippine president’s approach to Obama, whom he called a “son of a whore” last year in response to US criticism of his drug war.
Duterte says he hopes to discuss terrorism, mutual cooperation and the fight against drugs with Trump. Sung Kim, the US ambassador to Manila, has said “human rights, rule of law and due process” will set the meeting agenda. Analysts predict Duterte’s talking points will occupy most of the time, however.
Trump has already praised Duterte’s drug war and is unlikely to retreat from that position. Duterte, in reciprocation, has rhetorically backed America against North Korea. He has called Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-un a “son of a bitch” for “playing with dangerous toys.”
The fight against Islamic terrorism is common ground for the two presidents. Trump provided military assistance to Manila in its fight against the Islamic State-backed local militant groups that laid siege to Marawi City in May.
Some security analysts believe Western assistance, namely from the US and Australia, was key to Duterte’s declared “liberation” of the city and the killing of militant leaders last month.
American defense officials no doubt hope Trump can embolden anti-terrorism cooperation with the Philippines, particularly on the southern island of Mindanao, which some fear Islamic State could use as a home base in Southeast Asia as regional jihadists return home from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
Trump’s participation in the Apec and Asean summits will surely tax a president whose preference for bilateral dealings is well-known. Trump was expected to leave Manila early, missing Asean’s East Asian Summit, which will gather leaders from 18 regional countries, including China, Japan and India.
Now, it appears he will extend his visit by another day to take part in the security-related event that is expected to touch on both North Korea and the South China Sea.
Trump’s views on the former are well known and he will hope to secure support from attending leaders in his bid to build a multilateral coalition against Pyongyang.
What is decided when Trump visits Beijing on Wednesday, could determine what is discussed at the regional summits. China’s emboldened president Xi Jinping will also attend the Southeast Asian forums.
Trump’s outlook on the South China Sea is murkier than his view on the Korean peninsula. His staff remain as rhetorically opposed to Beijing’s militarization of the maritime area as the previous administration.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, a forum for Asia-Pacific’s defense chiefs held in June in Singapore, reconfirmed America’s commitment to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” and its “operational presence in the South China Sea.”
“Our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend both our interests and the freedoms enshrined in international law,” Mattis said.
Trump is expected to stick largely to that script. Still there are some concerns among Southeast Asian claimants, including Vietnam, that what happens during Trump’s visit to Beijing may dictate America’s stance on the issue.
If Xi succumbs to Trump’s requests on curbing North Korea’s aggression, some in the region fear the US president could turn a blind eye to Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea.
Such transactional diplomacy, compared to America’s traditionally touted as rules-based diplomacy, has so far typified Trump’s tenure. Some Southeast Asian leaders might hope to take advantage of this, while others will be confused by the frequent disconnect between Trump’s public utterances and his government’s actual intent.