This Week Around Asia

No Trump brusheroo for Asean; an Indian move in the Andamans

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

Just when you thought the 45th President of the United States was poised to give Asean the brusheroo, comes word from the White House that Mr Donald Trump will indeed travel to Manila for this year’s East Asia Summit and Asean Plus One talks with regional leaders. That’s somewhat of a relief for those who despaired of flagging American commitment to the South-east Asian region. Still, it is clear that the Donald is being dragged to the summit by his key advisers.

Witness this exchange that took place abroad Air Force One in mid-September as he was flying back from Florida to Washington DC after visiting hurricane victims:

Q: Are you going to visit China this fall in November in that Asia trip?

THE PRESIDENT: Probably be visiting. I was invited by the President. We'll probably all be going over as a group some time in November.

Q: You mean China?

THE PRESIDENT: And we'll be doing -

Q: Japan.

THE PRESIDENT: Japan, South Korea, possibly Vietnam with a conference. Okay?

Q: What about the Philippines for that Asean conference?

THE PRESIDENT: He invited us, we're going to see.

Q: You mean South Korea, China, and Japan for sure?

THE PRESIDENT: Right now definite. We've been invited by the Philippines. They want us to go - Vietnam - to the conference.

Q: - trade conference, you think?

THE PRESIDENT: We'll possibly do that. It will be a busy 10 days, okay? Keep you guys busy.

President Trump's words take on significance because they were spoken two days after he received a key Asean leader, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, at the White House on Sept 12.


US President Donald Trump greets Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak outside of the West Wing of the White House on Sept 12, 2017, in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

It could not be that the issue of his presence in Manila had come up at the meeting with Datuk Seri Najib, or that too much time had elapsed since the question of his trip to Manila had last been on his mind.

The low priority Mr Trump assigns was further in evidence when Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called on him this week.

Thailand hosts the largest American mission in South-east Asia, with dozens of US government departments represented. Yet, Mr Trump's remarks as they jointly addressed media reflected little awareness of this, or that Thailand - a US treaty ally - is increasingly seen as a swing state in South-east Asia.

 
 

While Mr Trump was perfunctory, General Prayut spoke of the security relationship, promising to strengthen it and "work closely in order we resolve the regional issue of concern".

As for Mr Trump, this is what his priorities seemed to be about:

THE PRESIDENT: "I do want to say that our relationship on trade - and we've been negotiating very long and hard, and we're meeting with our representatives in a little while to go further. But our relationship on trade is becoming more and more important. And it's a great country to trade with; they make product and different things that are really very important to us, and we likewise sell to you.

"I think we're going to try and sell a little bit more to you now, make that a little bit better if that's possible. But we have a big, full period of time scheduled with our two staffs."

 
 

US policy towards the region seems overly focused on the big powers of Asia - China, Japan and India.

At the next level is Vietnam - notice Mr Trump did not rule out attending the Apec summit in Hanoi.

Pakistan, once a tight ally, is seen more and more as a nuisance.

Some of this is understandable.

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, for instance, is front and centre of everyone's mind and naturally, gets heavy attention. A stable relationship with China is vital.

Still, that does not mean minnows, even gathered under the Asean flag as a bloc of 600 million, should not be getting the attention they deserve. To ignore them would be nothing less than a strategic blunder. A presidential handshake steadies many a wavering elbow in the region.

The next significant contact Mr Trump will have with an Asean leader is when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong travels to see him later this month.

INDIA SENDS RETIRED FOUR STAR ADMIRAL TO RUN THE ANDAMANS

The bottom half of the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands is controlled by India and with its southern tip only 90 nautical miles or so from Sumatra, this gives the South Asian power a foot hold in South-east Asia.

Indeed, ships passing through the Strait of Malacca have to enter or emerge under the watchful eye of the Indian Navy.

Developing the Andaman and Nicobars and militarising them have always been on the Indian agenda, but New Delhi has tended to go slow on it.

In the 1980s, a plan to station Jaguar fighter bombers on Car Nicobar island was given up after the foreign ministry advised against it, fearing it might make South-east Asia nervous as to Indian intentions.

Today, there is no such nervousness in South-east Asia. Indeed, given China's assertive behaviour in the region, there might even be a sense of reassurance to see India beef up military capabilities in the vicinity.

Since the 2004 tsunami, which also affected the islands, India has eyed plans to significantly build up the area.

Now, real muscle is being added to the effort and nothing underscores this as much as the appointment last week of former Indian navy chief Admiral DK Joshi to the post of Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman & Nicobar administration. Since it is a federally administered territory, Adm Joshi has direct charge of the entire administration of the islands, and reports to the Home Ministry in New Delhi.

Adm Joshi's appointment to the civilian governor's job is doubly significant since he has expert knowledge of the islands, having served there before during his military career, when he was Commander-in-Chief Andaman & Nicobars, or CINCAN in Indian military parlance. The Andamans is the first and only triservice command, integrating all three sword arms of the Indian military.

The appointment also is in some ways a rehabilitation for the admiral. In February 2014, he abruptly resigned as navy chief following a series of accidents involving his fleet, including the loss of a submarine after an accident on board.