Trump team needs to clarify its Asean relationship

Xuan Loc Doan April 20, 2017 12:34 AM (UTC+8)
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US Vice President Mike Pence’s stop in Jakarta this week will mark the first visit to Indonesia and Southeast Asia by a top official in the administration of Donald Trump. Pence will meet with Le Luong Minh, secretary general of the 10-member Asean group.

The visit will provide clues as to how the Trump presidency approaches America’s relations with not only Asean’s biggest member, but also the regional group as a whole. US Southeast Asia policy has been unclear since Trump’s stunning election victory in November.

Indonesia is the third leg of the former Indiana governor’s four-country Asia-Pacific tour that began on April 15. His first two stops were South Korea and Japan and followed similar first-time visits by US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February and March. The significance of such high-level trips confirms that the Trump administration attaches great importance to US ties with its two key regional allies.

Despite his criticism of the two northeast Asian countries during the election campaign, since taking office Trump has voiced his appreciation of and commitment to the American alliance with Japan and South Korea.

US ties with Tokyo and Seoul strengthen

While there remain differences over economic matters, the Trump White House’s overall relationship with Tokyo and Seoul has steadied and strengthened, especially on the security front. This is due mainly to their shared concern over North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear threat.

Pence will also visit Australia. Trump’s relationship with Canberra remains unclear, particularly in the wake of what was said to be a testy phone call in January with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Mattis and Tillerson did not visit Australia during their tours even though it is a key US ally in the Asia-Pacific region and a member of the so-called Five Eyes alliance — an intelligence-sharing group consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Australia is also an ardent supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge trade deal signed under the Obama administration but abandoned by Trump.

Southeast Asian leaders seek US assurances

Against this background, in their meetings with Pence, Australian leaders will seek not only clarity and assurances about the US alliance with Canberra, but also insights into the Trump administration’s overall policy in the wider region. The Indonesian government and other capitals in Southeast Asia will look for similar assurances from Pence.

During the first months of the Trump administration, US ties with Southeast Asia were problematic. The president’s travel ban against several predominately Muslim countries was not well received in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

The US has a significant trade deficit with Asean members Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, and as a result they are being investigated by the Trump administration for trade abuses.

Being listed among so-called trade “cheaters” worries and displeases these four countries and it remains unclear how the Trump administration will respond if trade abuse is confirmed.

Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the TPP also puzzles Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, which are signatories of the 12-country Pacific Rim trade pact. And it is still unclear whether the White House has an alternative to the trade deal.

Is Trump ignoring the regional powerhouse?

Asean leaders are also concerned about the new president’s stance toward the organization. So far Trump appears to have largely ignored the group, which has a total population of 625 million people and plays a central role in shaping cooperation in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

It’s not clear if Trump will attend the East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this year in the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively.

President Barack Obama sought to develop closer ties with Asean’s member states. In February last year, he played host to a special summit with Asean leaders at Sunnylands, California. At the end of the two-day meeting, both sides issued a 17-point declaration, in which they reaffirmed “the key principles that will guide our cooperation going forward.” One of these principles was, “Respect and support for Asean Centrality and Asean-led mechanisms in the evolving regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.”

Obama a frequent visitor to Asean countries

During his eight-year tenure, Obama traveled to the region seven times and met with all the Asean leaders 11 times. He visited Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar twice. Under Obama’s leadership, the US ratified the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and became the first non-Asean country to appoint a resident ambassador to Asean.

On the whole, Asean and its members featured prominently in the Obama administration’s signature Asia pivot.

When they meet with Pence, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Asean Secretary General Minh will probably want to hear whether Trump really values America’s ties with Asean and the regional grouping’s leading role in the Asia-Pacific region as his predecessor did. If so, then Trump needs to shift his posture.

While it is understandable that Trump wants to balance the US trade relationship with China — with whom it runs a huge trade deficit – Trump’s tough posture vis-à-vis smaller partners, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, is strategically undesirable.

Southeast Asian countries look to the US not only for security but also for economic benefits. During the past year or so, many regional countries, including the Philippines, the US’s longest ally in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia, another of America’s key regional partners, have pivoted away from Washington toward Beijing. And the fundamental reason is that their giant neighbor can offer them attractive economic deals.

US hard-line trade stance has risks in the region

Trump’s TPP withdrawal has greatly damaged America’s reputation, prestige, and place in the region. If he continues to push hard on trade issues, Southeast Asian countries will tilt further toward China.

Trump’s preference for bilateralism over multilateralism and his transactional approach to international affairs, especially in trade and security matters, do not resonate well in the Asean region.

As small and medium-sized states, Southeast Asian states prefer a multilateral approach to regional issues. That is why they have proactively fostered and led regional institutions, such as Asean Regional Forum, Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit.

Some may regard these Asean-led forums as “talk shops”. Yet, if Trump and his top lieutenants are absent from Asean summits or ministerial meetings, US influence in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region will significantly diminish.

On a wide range of matters, notably the South China Sea issue, the US needs the cooperation and support from Asean if it wants to deal with them effectively.

Thus, it will be a strategic mistake if the Trump administration overlooks Southeast Asia, Asean and its members.

Xuan Loc Doan
Xuan Loc Doan is a UK-based researcher. He holds a PhD in International Relations and researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UK’s politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
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