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The Coming Uncertainty: US-Southeast Asia Relations in the Age of Trump

With President-elect Donald Trump taking office, the possibility of a declining US commitment to Southeast Asia has become a concern.

This year will kick-start with, arguably, one of the highest-profile news stories in modern history: the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States. Trump’s campaign narrative tended to focus on a domestic populist policy of “putting America first,” such as providing American jobs to American workers and halting mass immigration. The foreign policy field has also been targeted. This includes retrenching America’s commitment overseas, subsidizing defense of allies, promoting democracy and intervening militarily in foreign conflict zones.

These core pronouncements found a receptive audience at home. For example, Trump has stated that under his administration there is a possibility that the US will withdraw from key geopolitical initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This seems to align with an offshore-balancing strategy, which propagates that Washington should forgo its lofty ambitions of policing the world and, instead, encourage regional powers to take the lead.

While the US is likely to keep a limited presence of forward-deployed forces in Asia and lend support to its allies in the region during possible contingencies, the possibility of US retrenchment has caused concern among countries in Southeast Asia. This is particularly true for allies and partners, such as the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, who expect the US to play a more prominent role in overcoming the collective-action problem of local actors failing to balance against the likely hegemon: China.

Despite repeated reassurance from Washington over its commitment to Asia, many countries are not convinced the US will come to their aid in case of a confrontation with China. Furthermore, with the US about to abandon its leading trade deal, the TPP, some leaders doubt the credibility of Washington’s ability to walk the talk.

Waning Strategic Autonomy

American presence in Southeast Asia is an indispensable strategic counterweight, given that the military and economic power gap between China and its neighbors is huge. China’s rise has triggered a new era of power competition throughout the region that has threatened to tear apart the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from within.

Economic interdependence was bandied as beneficial for Beijing and ASEAN, in which Chinese investments in member countries increased exponentially. China eventually emerged as the top foreign investor and aid donor to Cambodia and Laos, with substantial investments in Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia. This condition is worrisome as more and more ASEAN members are unable to reach a consensus, particularly regarding the South China Sea dispute.

During Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2012, the association’s centrality was under threat for the first time at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh, where member states failed to agree on a communiqué. Many member states and observers saw this as pressure from China to avoid specific mention of disputes surrounding the South China Sea. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that China’s “nine-dashed-line” was incompatible with prevailing international law, and claimed that Beijing’s reclamation activities had inflicted irreparable harm on the maritime environment. However, ASEAN has not issued any statements mentioning the ruling nor calling for compliance by concerned parties.

The reality is that Southeast Asia is increasingly unable to take a strong position against China due to economic dependence, not only for Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam (CMLV), but also other major Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Indonesia, for example, needs closer ties with China for foreign investment to fund its ambitious infrastructure plans. Indonesia aims to finance a third of the estimated $5.6 million cost of developing its ports and maritime highways through loans from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In return, Indonesia has openly endorsed AIIB while criticizing Western financial institutions.

Some observers have noted that Indonesia’s administration under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), leaning too closely toward China, risks Jakarta’s strategic autonomy and neutrality. However, Jokowi, thus far, has not paid much attention to the criticism due to the economic upside of Chinese investment. Consequently, some observers have noted the decreasing commitment by Indonesia to lead significant ASEAN initiatives that respond to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. This is an example of the lack of motivation some Asian nations have to respond to Beijing’s assertiveness due to a fear of scaring off Chinese investment.

US Footprint

The increasing presence and commitment of the United States is, therefore, important not only to help coordinate policy measures in response to the growing security challenges in Southeast Asia, but also to pressure China to abide by international norms and to dilute Beijing’s economic influence in the region. Aware of this imperative, the Asia Pacific region became a geostrategic priority for the Obama administration, as shown by the signature “pivot to Asia” policy or the “Asia rebalance” strategy. This is because the region is increasingly becoming the world’s economic, political, and military center of gravity.

As an important part of the Asia Pacific region, Southeast Asia is vital for the US because it contributes to significant population growth with a new emerging middle class in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which is a critical driver of the global economy.

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It is also an arena for great-power competition and military confrontation, particularly in the South China Sea which, as a transit route, accounted for approximately 30% of the world’s maritime trade in 2016, including about $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States. The tensions surrounding this potential great power competition and confrontation have continued to boil in recent years due to coercive action from the region’s rising great power: China.

Against this backdrop, the Obama administration has placed much attention on strengthening relations with allies and potential partners in Southeast Asia. Other than signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014 with the Philippines and reiterating the importance of the US-Thai alliance, President Barack Obama has also strengthened relations with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Obama’s historic visit to Hanoi in May 2016 and the lifting of the ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam was a demonstration of Washington’s newly-found commitment to Southeast Asia. On top of that, the US Defense Department is implementing the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, an initial $425-million, five-year US commitment to build maritime domain awareness and security in Southeast Asia.

Making Friends

Despite Obama’s pivot to Asia, with increasingly turbulent domestic politics and democracy in retreat in the region, it is getting harder for Washington to justify this commitment to domestic constituencies. On one hand, there is a movement that questions why the current administration is deepening its relations with non-democratic governments. On the other hand, it is difficult for the US to criticize Southeast Asian counterparts without inviting an anti-American backlash.

For example, with the military regime in Thailand likely to stay, the US has a dilemma on its hands: whether or not to resume normal contact without knowing when or if the regime will transfer power to a civilian government. Complicating matters, the regime and its supporters have criticized Washington for a lack of understanding of Thai politics. For the moment, the US has suspended its military assistance and arms sales to Thailand, including limiting military cooperation and scaling down Exercise Cobra Gold.

In May 2016, US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies expressed concern over the country’s human rights record, which upset various groups in Thailand and spurred anti-American sentiment. While both parties still express their willingness to search for new areas of cooperation, ties are at risk of reaching a breaking point in the future, and Thailand has increasingly expanded its relations with Beijing as an alternative option.

With the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and his controversial approach in the war on drugs, the US must criticize his policies that go against democratic norms and values. This has strained relations between the two countries. Moreover, Duterte has also departed from former President Benigno Aquino’s confrontational approach with China by opting for direct engagement.

Against the backdrop of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) increasing activities in the South China Sea, such as deploying fighter jets and nuclear-capable long-range bombers to the Scarborough Shoal, combined with a growing number of naval vessels and fishermen in contested waters, Duterte has realized that confronting Beijing is not the best course of action.

In addition, Duterte is unsure of the strategic utility of the final Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling and lack of support from ASEAN and the international community’s call to comply. Furthermore, there is also doubt over whether Washington will guarantee that it will provide military support to Manila in the event of a conflict with China. The US has, so far, been ambiguous on its commitment, and Trump’s election further muddied the waters.

The US relationship with other countries in the region, although improving, is shaky. For example, despite signing the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership in 2013, Washington has not granted Hanoi’s request for greater access to the American market by formally designating it as a market economy, primarily because of underlying concerns with the privileged role of state-owned enterprises in Vietnam’s socialist economy. Vietnamese officials are also suspicious of US promotion of democracy and how it might destabilize the country’s one-party system. Furthermore, Vietnam is a close friend of Russia, with a broad range of deep cooperation in energy, defense and technology.

Other than the issue of ideological compatibility, US engagement in Southeast Asia is complicated by efforts to strike the right balance. A significant US withdrawal from the region will be exploited by China, but too much US meddling will also be counterproductive. For example, the withdrawal of American bases in the Philippines in 1995 was immediately exploited by Beijing to reassert control in the South China Sea, which culminated in the coercive occupation of the Mischief Reef.

Additionally, Washington’s lack of will to stand up to Beijing in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff and the Philippines aligning with China have demonstrated the peril of US inaction. However, America’s entry into the dispute would likely trigger further belligerence from China’s side.

A Convergence of Interests

With the China threat looming, the interests of Southeast Asian countries and the US are converging.

At sea, standoffs between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors have become more frequent. On March 19, 2016, tensions boiled over when China’s coast guard intervened to release a Chinese fishing boat arrested by the Indonesian coast guard for fishing within the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). On June 17, 2016, the Indonesian Navy ship, KRI Imam Bonjol-383, was in involved in another standoff with the Chinese Coast Guard after capturing an illegal fishing trawler sporting China’s flag, Han Tan Cou 19038, together with its seven crew members.

The US needs to find a careful way to address its intention of promoting democracy without stirring a backlash. Furthermore, it is important to maintain its credibility in the eyes of allies and friends who are currently trying to ponder the true face of President-elect Trump—pragmatic businessman or isolationist.

In response, on June 23, 2016, President Jokowi created a media-savvy diplomatic gesture by paying a visit to Natuna with several ministers and conducting a meeting in the disputed maritime area. Despite appearing to be a seemingly audacious takeover, the visit to Natuna was accompanied by a series of clarifications, such as a reassertion by Jokowi that Indonesia still hopes to build a strong diplomatic relationship with China during a visit to Hangzhou.

Similarly, although security relations between China and Malaysia are deepening, there is a new push for a stronger position against China, especially if the claim of an intensification of China’s military presence on occupied reefs in the South China Sea is verified. This kind of break-up-and-make-up sequence has been a common pattern of relations between China and its neighbors.

Despite the convergence of interests, it does not mean it will be easier for the US to forge a deeper, more meaningful alliance, particularly because of the non-alliance policy that most Southeast Asian countries pursue. For example, Vietnam’s defense policy clearly restricts Hanoi from joining any military alliance and does not permit the presence of foreign military bases or the use of Vietnamese soil to launch military activities against other countries. Similarly, Indonesia does not seek security guarantees from the US due to its policy of neutrality.

Nevertheless, Southeast Asian countries generally welcome the presence of the US Navy in the South China Sea, as long as it contributes to peace in the region and puts pressure on China to backtrack from its overwhelmingly aggressive actions.

Advice for Trump

It is undeniable that China will become an even stronger player in the Asia Pacific region if the US withdraws. If the role of the US as security guarantor weakens over time, China will become the prominent economic and military power in the region. With the possible collapse of TPP, some countries such as MalaysiaJapan and Australia have turned their attention to wrapping up a multi-nation trade pact, led by China, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The consequence of dominant Chinese influence in the region will be the decline of a rules-based regional order and political stability in Southeast Asia. A diminished US presence will also leave regional allies and partners vulnerable to China’s pressure.

Southeast Asian countries need the US to stay in the region to contain China’s overwhelming power and growing assertiveness. Nonetheless, it is important for the US to increase its cultural and political sensitivity toward countries in the region to mitigate future backlash and increased anti-American sentiment.

The US needs to find a careful way to address its intention of promoting democracy without stirring a backlash. Furthermore, it is important to maintain its credibility in the eyes of allies and friends who are currently trying to ponder the true face of President-elect Trump—pragmatic businessman or isolationist. This should be done by asserting a clearer position on its willingness to protect allies and it Southeast Asian partners in the age of Trump.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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