Time for Asean, US to build new 'out-of-the box' relationship: The Nation Columnists

Flags of Asean countries are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office in Brunei.
Flags of Asean countries are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office in Brunei.PHOTO: ST FILE

Kobsak Chutikul and Jacob Hogan

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The consistent message from United States President-elect Donald Trump during and since the election has been that things will not be the same. He has to be taken at his word.

For Asia, remarks by both Mr Trump and in-coming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raise the spectre of an arc of volcanic political and military instability running down from the Korean Peninsula, through the Taiwan Strait, to the South China Sea.

The campaign pledge of Mr Trump has been to pursue an "America First" policy, suggesting a more transactional and pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Trade policy will aim to seek out individual victories and bespoke bilateral trade deals that favour US industries rather than creating region-wide trade blocs as the Trans Pacific Partnership had attempted.

Mr Trump ran an effective populist platform promising to bring jobs back to decaying manufacturing and agricultural areas of the US, jobs which were seemingly lost to the forces of free trade and globalisation, catalysed by regional free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement. In this context, the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP under Mr Trump looks inevitable.

However, two salient points remain.

First, the "America First" policy implies a turn back towards relative gains, with America returning to "winning bigly" in trade negotiations (with the implication that its would-be trading partners would accept deals in which they would be losers). But a look at Mr Trump's early domestic "successes" show a flexibility and a pragmatism in negotiations pertinent to Southeast Asian countries.

Soon after the election, President-elect Trump sat down with bosses and union representatives from Carrier Air over their plans to move 2,100 jobs to Mexico. Mr Trump had made the threat that should those jobs leave Indiana factories, a 35 per cent tax would be slapped on their products and that Carrier Air's parent company would be at risk of losing lucrative government contracts.

However, the devil is in the details. Despite the blustre, there was compromise and pragmatism in the deal. The threat of punitive import taxes gave way to seven million dollars (S$10 million) in tax breaks and a promise to wind back state regulations. 1,100 jobs were claimed to have been saved (later rounded down to 700), while the rest were still shipped abroad. A promise for more investment in local manufacturing jobs by Carrier in the United States was made. All parties left the negotiation table sufficiently satisfied with the outcome. For Asean countries, the Carrier Air agreement is a good guide for how to approach the Trump administration's deal-making style.

And second, while in its traditional form as an economic bloc between 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific the TPP might be over, but under a Trump administration the TPP could be revived in other forms in order to get deals done. Large trade blocs could make way for bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) or agreements with industry-specific exceptions.

Talks over a FTA between the US and Japan have long been at a roadblock over conditions for agricultural subsidies and automotive tariffs; similarly, disagreements between the two biggest members stalled TPP negotiations.

The accord reached on October 5 last year thus represents a watershed moment in US-Japan trade talks, as they were able to come to terms with their seemingly intractable disputes. In an increasingly competitive regional economic environment, there is likely to be political will in both Tokyo and Washington to further consolidate the economic and strategic relationship in a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, which would be a far easier sell to a Trump administration. For Prime Minister Abe and President Trump, a good place to start their bilateral negotiations would be at the TPP.

Similarly, for countries like Australia and New Zealand, both of whom already have FTAs with the United States, the provisions in the TPP could be akin to upgrading their existing agreements. Again, the TPP agreement could be a starting point for further negotiations. For Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, none of whom have FTAs with the United States, negotiations on a bilateral agreement should start with the TPP. Likewise, for the other six Asean member states which were to be left behind by the TPP, they also have a starting point when sitting at the negotiating table with the new transactional president.

A Trump administration would likely see value in Asean as a geopolitical bargaining chip vis-a-vis China. But given the President-elect's business background, what would most likely bring Asean to the fore for the American President are the possibilities for investment and trade transactions that go outside the box.

Asean is a popular source of investment for American companies which use the region as a production base and each year, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations, 1.2 trillion dollars (S$1.7 trillion) of US trade passes through the South China Sea. Moreover, US investments in Southeast Asia deliver better returns on capital than other parts of the world. Asean nations are now also in a position to make extensive investments in the United States.

There is a conducive climate both ways. Mr Trump already has highly-placed admirers in Asean. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly endorsed Mr Trump even before the US elections, pointing with confidence to his deal-making business background. Philippine President Duterte seems to see a kindred spirit. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, like other Asean leaders, probably feels a less hectoring American administration is a welcome relief.

One of the foreign policy legacies of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia has been the attention afforded to face-time with the leaders of the Asia-Pacific, not least of all, those in Asean, during the end-of-year Summit Season. It is easy to forget that East Asia's multilateral institutions were completely eschewed under President George W. Bush.

When Mr. Obama declared himself the 'Pacific President,' the US signed and ratified the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, paving the way for the United States' entry in 2011 into the East Asia Summit, the region's premier leader-level strategic dialogue. This was topped off by hosting the 10 Asean leaders at the Sunnylands Ranch in California, where the US paid service to Asean Centrality and the AseanWay as a Strategic Partner of Asean. President Obama no doubt similarly had China on his mind.

This year President Obama capped off his Asian farewell tour by attending the East Asia Summit in Laos - the first sitting US President to visit the country - and having attended every such summit since the United States' entry in 2011, except that of 2013 in Brunei during the US government shut down.

It is hard to imagine a President Trump affording such importance to Asean. Understandably, following in the footsteps of Mr. Obama is clearly not something that would immediately appeal to a Trump administration. Convincing Mr Trump of the importance of Asean-led institutions, the culture of informality, consensus building and cumulative dialogue would be an especially hard sell - not to mention the wearing of colourful shirts. More inspired outside the box thinking is urgently required. The maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium in the region depends on it.

After years of face-to-face with Obama, Asean leaders may have to get used to settling for lower level envoys, such as Secretary of State or Vice President.

However, such an approach towards Asean from the Trump administration would be a misstep.

When President Obama missed the East Asia Summit in 2013, China's President Xi Jinping delighted in his absence. In Asean - as well as in Beijing - there was a reinforced realisation of the limits to the credibility of the Pivot and the capacity of Mr. Obama to live up to his promises in the Asia-Pacific, as well as the fact that, for better or worse, China is the new resident superpower in the region.

Thus, the timing of the next three Asean Chairs could be a blessing in disguise in terms of enticing a Trump face-to-face. It is hard to imagine a President Trump visiting Vientiane; but the offer of an extravaganza platform in Manila to proclaim a Trump Doctrine for Asia to be hosted by Filipino President Duterte, the current Asean Chair, and a seemingly like-minded leader of a crucial ally, might be irresistible.

Singapore and Thailand, also both crucial long-term US partners, follow the Philippines as Asean Chairs in 2018 and 2019. Thinking must begin on keeping up the momentum. Ground must be laid, contacts established, and quick-turnover transactional economic deals readied. Continued peace and stability in the region, in addition to prosperity, will depend on it.

It is an opportunity for Asean entering its 50th year and the US under a Trump administration to build a new out-of-the box relationship.

Mr Trump has a good opportunity to reset US relations with key partners in Southeast Asia, and thereby with the Asian region as a whole. Meeting the leaders on their turf would be a good start.

"A Teardrop on the Face of Time" is how poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal, a beautiful but sad and empty monument to what might have been. Lets hope that the description will not one day fit either Asean nor the in-coming Trump administration.