Advice for the 45th President of the US: A View from Asean

President Donald Trump's administration must make Asia and Asean a priority

Every four years, the United States chooses its president in an election that is astonishingly transparent, frequently unpredictable and internally all-consuming. In Asia, many thought that we too should have a vote in that election, as what the US president decides and does will have an enormous impact on us and on the rest of the world. So I take this opportunity to provide one perspective from Asean in hopes that it may find its way to the highest level of policymakers.

The United States has a history of long engagement with Asia and Asean. Since World War II, it has been the most significant player in the Asia-Pacific region, and it enjoys goodwill and support from most Asian countries.

US alliances, formed in the aftermath of the war, are the anchor of the US military presence in the region, helping to keep the peace and grow prosperity. During the Cold War, the United States was seen to be a natural partner for non-communist countries in the region. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean statesman, made the point on a couple of occasions that the US decision to stay and fight in Vietnam bought time for the Asean countries to build their economies and institutions. This allowed the new states to develop into industrialising economies.

The post-Cold War international scene is far more complex. For a brief moment, the United States enjoyed a hegemonic role and used its tremendous power to try to shape the international system. But the rapid emergence of new challenges, both traditional and non-traditional, has created instability in the global order.

The world was surprised by the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union, the unfolding of the Asian financial crisis, the spread of Islamist terrorism, an unravelling Middle East and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Flags of the Asean member states. It is important that the US continues to engage with Asean nations, even as China grows into a formidable power. Asean wants good relationships with both sides as it understands that better relations between all part
Flags of the Asean member states. It is important that the US continues to engage with Asean nations, even as China grows into a formidable power. Asean wants good relationships with both sides as it understands that better relations between all parties concerned will make life easier for the smaller and middle-sized countries in Asia. ST FILE PHOTO

In Asia, the regional context has changed fundamentally with the rise of China and the return of great power rivalries. Together, these events have kept the United States preoccupied and distracted, and reactive rather than strategic in exercising its international role.

Flags of the Asean member states. It is important that the US continues to engage with Asean nations, even as China grows into a formidable power. Asean wants good relationships with both sides as it understands that better relations between all part

Today, Asia is facing a strategic test in adjusting to a new China, a development that presents both opportunities and challenges. China presents a tremendous opportunity because of its market and its vast potential in trade and investments, and its recent economic initiatives have been well received. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was welcomed by all countries in Asia, and its One Belt, One Road vision has intrigued and interested governments and businesses alike. is crucial that the first message Asian countries hear from President-elect Trump is one of continuity, emphasising that the United States means to stay in Asia, that US engagement with Asia and Asean will remain unchanged, and that America's word is good.

Although its economy has slowed in the past two years, it will pick up again. Even though more ups and downs are likely, China's long-term economic trajectory remains positive. China is a challenge, however, because all the countries in Asia must face China as a great power, and as a power that has become more assertive in its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

It is in the maritime domain, in particular, that China's rise poses a challenge, especially to the United States, which has been for the past seven decades the predominant power in the Pacific.

That position is about to change. The South China Sea has become a proxy for the competition for influence between the United States and China in the region.

In this contest, China has been a steady player, persistent, gifting and ever present. Asean has especially felt the weight of Chinese influence in the South China Sea, where China's nine-dash-line claim and the speed and scope of its land reclamation dwarf similar activities by other claimants.

The four Asean claimants are working, each in its own way, to find a path to peacefully resolve their disputes with China, both through bilateral and regional venues, and according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and international law. What is left unclear, however, are the broader implications of Chinese activities for the freedom of sea lanes and overflight, issues that international stakeholders are keen to clarify.


So what would Asean want the next president of the United States to do? This is a much harder question to answer than a few months ago. Asean is at an inflection point.

On Oct 21, during his state visit to China, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said before a packed Philippine-China business forum: "I announce my separation from the United States… in military, maybe not social, and economics also," at the same time declaring his pivot to China: "I will be dependent on you for all time." He went even further in declaring his new foreign policy approach, stating: "I've realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, the Philippines and Russia. It is the only way."

While it was expected that President Duterte would rebalance his country's foreign policy, this very stark and clear statement was not. His officials later walked back his remarks, clarifying that President Duterte did not mean the Philippines would cut off economic and trade ties with the United States. Meanwhile, US White House and Pentagon spokesmen indicated that the administration had not received any request to alter the bilateral relationship.

President Duterte has back-pedalled on his unexpected declaration, explaining he did not mean to sever US-Philippine ties, but it is too soon to understand how this "separation" will translate into action. The significance of a downturn in US-Philippine relations would be profound. Nearly four million Filipinos live in the United States and remittances from overseas make up 10 per cent of the Philippine gross domestic product.

Moreover, the US relationship remains very popular with average Filipinos. A survey last year showed 90 per cent of Filipinos love the United States, a higher percentage than Americans.

While the Philippines has been more open and dramatic about the switch in its orientation and mindset, in reality, some Asean states have been realigning towards China in differing degrees for quite some time. Cambodia and Laos and, to some extent, Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia have all moved into the Chinese orbit without fanfare.

Yet, it would be wrong to believe that most Asean countries are only interested in one set of relationships. In fact, given their economic, trade and cultural ties, Asean countries want to engage with all the major powers in the world and, in particular, to enjoy good relationships with both the United States and China. And, they also want the United States and China to enjoy good relations with each other. Asean understands that better relations between the United States and China make life easier for the smaller and middle-sized countries in Asia.

With this as background, and bearing in mind the election rhetoric and the inward-looking and protectionist mood of the US electorate, it is crucial that the first message Asian countries hear from President-elect Trump is one of continuity, emphasising that the United States means to stay in Asia, that US engagement with Asia and Asean will remain unchanged, and that America's word is good.

Beyond this statement, the United States can do several things to reassure Asean partners:

• The first policy initiative that would speak volumes and go a long way to signal commitment would be for the new secretary of state to make Asia and Asean the first trip abroad. This would signal at once that the United States intends to pay attention to the most dynamic region in the world and that it intends to maintain its position as a key player in Asia. Mr Dean Rusk made Asia his first stop for his first visit abroad as secretary of state. Mrs Hillary Clinton was the second secretary of state to do so. Asia and Asean hope there will be a third under the Trump administration.

• It is crucial that the US president attends every Asean regional meeting, such as the Asean-US Summit and the East Asia Summit, particularly as the Philippines will be the Asean chair next year. Under president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines chose to go to the international arbitral tribunal over the South China Sea, angering China.

Yet, President Xi Jinping still attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Manila amid bilateral tensions. Few platforms in Asia engage all the leaders of the region. Not to show up would suggest that the United States has yielded or degraded its leadership role.

• The United States must continue to deepen its relationship with Asean. In 2009, the United States initiated an annual US-Asean Summit. This was an excellent initiative by President Barack Obama and should be continued by President-elect Trump. The relationship developed into a strategic partnership last year. The Sunnylands meeting swiftly followed this year.

There are five priority areas of cooperation in the Asean-US Strategic Partnership: economic integration, maritime cooperation, transnational challenges including climate change, emerging leaders and women's opportunities.

Maritime capacity-building and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief would be good places to focus going forward, given the hyper typhoons and earthquakes in the region. The United States has also played an important role since 9/11 in providing assistance to Asean with counter-terrorism capacity-building and intelligence exchanges. This too could be stepped up, given increased concerns about the probability of an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

• The United States should continue to play a role in upholding the regional rules-based order through its military presence, and to support Asean in building a strong regional architecture. Routine freedom-of-navigation operations are useful in this regard.

They should not be seen as provocative as they are consistent with international law, which protects the freedom of sea lanes and overflight. However, they must be conducted with caution because accidents and miscalculations can happen. Here, promoting the continued adherence to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea will be important and can help the relevant parties operate more safely in an increasingly crowded maritime space.

• But the US stake in Asean is not based solely on security. US economic ties to Asean are important, and growing, and must be a continued priority.

Asean's total population is more than 600 million people. Two-way US-Asean trade is worth US$234 billion (S$334 billion), and Asean is the fourth-largest goods export market for the United States after Canada, Mexico and China.

The US-Asean Business Council estimates that 7 per cent of US jobs from exports are supported by exports to Asean, and more than 560,000 American jobs are directly or indirectly created by goods and services exports to the regional grouping. The United States should continue to cultivate this longstanding business and trade partnership.

• The new administration must send out a balanced message on trade. During the election campaign, a large segment of the electorate came out against international trade, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in particular. The United States is among the top two trading nations in the world. Trade and investment formed the basis for US growth and prosperity and the strengthening of US relationships with the world. Trade needs to be rebuilt. Asia has been enormously important for the United States in terms of trade relations. Years of hard negotiations have gone into the TPP trade agreement, the largest trade deal in history that is a win-win situation for all sides. Going forward, the new administration should work with Asia for a trade architecture with which we are all comfortable.

• Above all, the United States must understand that many countries in Asean are going through political transitions and will be primarily focused on internal affairs for the foreseeable future. Thailand will see a new monarch installed soon and a new government when elections are held at the end of next year, as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has publicly promised. The Philippine President is new and so is the government of Myanmar. Indonesia's President Jokowi, elected in 2014, is arguably still new and focused on his domestic agenda. His foreign policy agenda is still being defined. Internal development will be the top priority for these countries, and their foreign policy priorities are likely to be coloured by, and flow from, their domestic economic and development agendas.

The new US administration will have to be patient with Asean as these transitions take place. Asean may not be as active or dynamic as in previous years, and it may be more difficult to achieve consensus among members. Of course, these ebbs and flows happen with most expanded groupings.

The United States should refrain from using US metrics to measure Asean and decide if meetings are worthwhile attending or if Asean has achieved the appropriate results. This type of criticism will not be helpful or productive. The United States needs to understand that nationalism is a growing force within many Asean countries; increasingly, they will not accept external criticisms of their internal policies.

They also perceive a double standard between how the US treats matters of democracy and human rights in Asia versus the Middle East. Asians question, for example, why the military leadership of Egypt was accepted as legitimate after it forcibly removed the country's elected president (albeit amid protests and demonstrations), and yet Thailand has been marginalised and isolated under similar circumstances.

Finally, I end by recognising that I have not touched on the issue of the Korean Peninsula and the rapid development of North Korea's capability to threaten South Korea, Japan, and now the continental United States with nuclear weapons. This is an urgent and imminent problem. It is not an area in which Asean is positioned to offer serious advice, but we are nonetheless concerned with the potential proliferation of nuclear materials. The potential for nuclear weapons to get into the wrong hands is a security threat in our countries, as it is for every country in the region. Preventing this outcome must be a top priority for the new administration.

We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to see the continued commitment of the United States to Asia.

• Prof Chan Heng Chee is chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design.

• This article was written for the Asia Society Policy Institute report, Advice to the 45th President: Views from Across the Pacific, released on Tuesday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Advice for the 45th President of the US: A View from Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe