South-east Asia and America under Trump

US-Myanmar: Loss of a white knight

The election of Donald Trump as America's next president has introduced uncertainty into ties between the world's superpower and other countries. Five scholars at the ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the likely impact on key nations in South-east Asia.

Under the Obama administration, the United States has been Myanmar's white knight by bringing Naypyitaw out of the international political and economic wilderness through sustained engagement with the Thein Sein administration, beginning in 2011.

The lifting of economic sanctions paved the way for Myanmar to seek normalcy in global trade following decades of imposed isolationism.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the US in September took bilateral ties to a new high with the establishment of the US-Myanmar Partnership. The visit was also an opportunity for the US to demonstrate bipartisan support to expand people-to-people ties, deepen bilateral economic engagement, work towards an open skies treaty, and initiate a new USAID loan portfolio guarantee.

These gains are less certain now, and the possibility of their roll-back by the incoming Trump administration cannot be ruled out. Mr Trump's "America First" policy may translate into a reduced American role in the country.

Since Myanmar considers the US as a counterbalance against China, a reduced US presence may encourage China to be more assertive in its dealings with Myanmar.

Mr Trump's protectionist tendencies put US efforts, initiated under the Obama administration, to restore the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) to Myanmar in jeopardy. Myanmar businesses had banked on the GSP benefits to increase exports to the US and expand bilateral trade, which currently hovers around US$200 million (S$284 million). This is measly compared with Myanmar's trade with China of around US$1 billion. The current state of affairs means that Myanmar will have to continue relying on Chinese markets. From a strategic perspective, the expansion of trade with the US provides Myanmar with the opportunity to diversify its trade and lessen dependence on China, thereby loosening Beijing's political hold on Naypyitaw.

Mr Trump's protectionist tendencies put US efforts, initiated under the Obama administration, to restore the Generalised System of Preferences to Myanmar in jeopardy.

One bright spot of Mr Trump's victory is his vow to curb the spread of radical Islam. The Obama administration had approached the issue of terrorism in the northern Rakhine state as a humanitarian issue, and paid little attention to the spread of radical Islam among the Bengali and Rohingya population. The Trump administration may view this pressing security issue from a different perspective and, as a result, improve counter-terrorism cooperation with Myanmar.


  • The writer is visiting senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former minister of information of Myanmar.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'US-Myanmar: Loss of a white knight'. Print Edition | Subscribe