In the early months of the Donald Trump administration, most South-East Asian nations have found themselves in a relatively familiar place in their dealings with Washington – on the periphery of U.S. policy. President Trump spoke with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte over the phone and has invited other South-East Asian leaders to the White House. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence had a short but relatively successful trip to Indonesia earlier this year. But other than the South China Sea – an issue which divides South-East Asian and Australasian nations in terms of how to respond to Beijing’s increasing dominance – the new U.S. administration has paid only modest attention to South-East Asia.
The White House has appointed few experts from the region to any jobs in the State Department so far, or in key slots in the departments of defense and commerce. South-East Asian officials in Washington are often at a loss as to who to even meet in the new administration in order to make contacts and discuss economic and strategic issues. Some important signals have been made by the White House to show it cares about South-East Asia. For example, Trump has publicly committed to attending a major Asian summit in November, an important sign to South-East Asian officials. Still, this day-to-day lack of interaction is deeply problematic for U.S.-South-East Asia ties. While the Barack Obama administration’s vaunted rebalance towards Asia, a strategy supposedly designed to boost U.S. economic and strategic ties with South-East Asia, was often more marketing than reality, Obama’s White House built a broad and deep range of ties to the region and its institutions. These are now in danger of withering.
But for some South-East Asians, Washington paying attention might be a recipe for more suffering. For example, the White House could validate autocratic-minded leaders. When the White House recently invited to leaders from the region to visit, Thai junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the Thai coup in 2014 and has presided over the most repressive political environment in Thailand in decades, was on the list Another invitation was extended to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which was a good decision. A third invite, however, was issued to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who seems to have developed a personal rapport with Trump. But he also recently declared martial law in the southern Philippines, warned he might extend it to the whole country, and has overseen a brutal drug war that has killed over 7,000 people, many without any trial at all.
Overall, South-East Asian rights activists, and many ordinary citizens, worry that this administration will simply ignore rights abuses in the region, an area where democracy has regressed badly over the past decade, with Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and the Philippines all moving towards outright or pseudo-authoritarianism. Even those South-East Asian leaders who have not been invited to Washington seem to already be benefiting from the White House’s disinterest in rights issues, or using the White House’s actions to justify their own. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for instance, has cracked down on reporters (and opposition politicians) in Cambodia in recent months, claiming that he and Trump share similar views about the “anarchic media”.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department, under Trump, has drastically shifted trade policy. In addition to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that includes three South-East Asian nations as well as Australia and New Zealand, the department has been working hard to determine whether certain major Asian trading partners are violators of trade rules and norms. If Trump’s White House ultimately winds up calling not only China, but also Vietnam and possibly Indonesia and Malaysia, trade violators, it could seriously poison economic ties with these countries.
A lack of interest from Washington in South-East Asia – other than on the South China Sea and some counter-terrorism issues – will only benefit China, as well as other regional powers like Japan, India, and Australia. With the United States pulling out of the TPP and potentially labeling several South-East Asian nations as trade violators, both Japan and China have stepped up their trade leadership in the region. Japan has rallied countries that are still committed to the TPP to push the agreement forward, and hopefully have it signed and concluded by November, although that remains an ambitious goal. China, meanwhile, has increasingly presented itself as the defender of free trade in the region – and globally – by promoting its own Asia-wide trade deal, and using major summits to proclaim (a bit disingenuously) that Beijing stands for free trade and against protectionism.
Beijing, indeed, has not only promoted itself as a beacon of free trade to Asian nations but also to countries throughout the Pacific Rim. In the wake of the Trump administration’s economic nationalism, China has been aggressively seeking new trade deals in Latin America, while members of the four-nation Latin American Pacific Alliance trade bloc are reportedly considering expanding their grouping to include Asian nations.
In the South China Sea, meanwhile, the one South-East Asian interest that clearly draws Washington’s attention, the new administration’s policies have often seemed confused – a confusion that potentially allows China to make further gains in solidifying its militarization of parts of the Sea. Even though Trump came into office seemingly promising to get tough on China, a strategy he previewed in December by directly phoning the leader of Taiwan, the White House has so far conducted only one freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea. These patrols are considered the most important military means of demonstrating U.S. commitment to navigational freedom in the Sea’s disputed waters. South-East Asian nations that have overlapped South China Sea claims with Beijing, such as Vietnam, clearly hoped that the White House would be more assertive in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials.
Trump held a jovial summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in April, which ended not in some kind of showdown but in a chummy proclamation of mutual goodwill. In recent months, Trump has backed away from much of his tough talk on Beijing, leaving some U.S. partners in the region, like Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia, wondering about the overall direction of the White House’s China policy.
In a climate where U.S. policy is uncertain, South-East Asian nations, some of which are major recipients of Chinese aid, are increasingly unable to work together on issues related to China. At the most recent ASEAN meeting of South-East Asian leaders, held in Manila in May, the group of ten South-East Asian countries issued only a weak statement about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Some ASEAN members, such as Cambodia and increasingly the Philippines under Duterte, seem willing to accept an era of Chinese regional dominance.
That may not be the outcome the Trump administration desires, but its approach to South-East Asia appears to be, in some ways, actually helping Beijing.