Questions on policy linger as Trump heads east

Key concern is Washington's approach to the region, given uncertainty in various issues

President Donald Trump's trip to Asia is an important symbolic indicator of his administration's commitment to the region, the writer says, adding that Mr Trump's record on South-east Asia so far has been more mixed.
President Donald Trump's trip to Asia is an important symbolic indicator of his administration's commitment to the region, the writer says, adding that Mr Trump's record on South-east Asia so far has been more mixed.PHOTO: REUTERS

Last week, the White House finally confirmed that United States President Donald Trump would indeed be making his first South-east Asia voyage since taking office in January, with stops in Vietnam and the Philippines to attend regional summits as part of a broader Asia trip in November.

Though Mr Trump's attendance at these meetings next month is itself an important symbolic indicator of his administration's commitment to South-east Asia, he and his team will also need to address some substantive concerns around US policy as he prepares for his first Asean trip.

Contrary to some of the doomsday scenarios painted by some at the outset, Mr Trump's record on South-east Asia so far has been more mixed. Worrying initial moves like the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact were followed by quick and robust engagement of key allies and partners, including White House visits granted for the leaders of Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore so far.

Yet as Mr Trump touches down in South-east Asian capitals next month, the bigger question he and his team will have to address beyond these individual developments is what, if anything, they all add up to in terms of the administration's approach to the sub-region and how it fits into its broader foreign policy.

The question is a fair one. With so much uncertainty still lingering over everything from key senior personnel to the shape of the administration's domestic agenda, it is difficult to predict with any kind of certainty where Washington will end up in terms of its regional approach. This is particularly true with respect to South-east Asia, which has traditionally occupied a marginal position in wider US global strategy.

President Donald Trump's trip to Asia is an important symbolic indicator of his administration's commitment to the region, the writer says, adding that Mr Trump's record on South-east Asia so far has been more mixed. PHOTO: REUTERS

Though it is still early days, what we have seen so far also leaves much to be desired. On the economic side, by hastily withdrawing from the TPP so early on and signalling a strong protectionist stance, the Trump administration has missed a valuable opportunity for the United States to engage the sub-region and left a huge void that it has yet to fill. Administration officials continue to insist that there are legitimate issues of fairness in trade that need to be addressed candidly with South-east Asian states, and that there might be other ways to preserve the gains made through TPP, including through several bilateral deals. But that misses the broader point. By framing economic issues in a bilateral, transactional way, the Trump administration is sending a message to the region that it is thinking small, just as Beijing is beginning to think bigger.

To be sure, one should not exaggerate the extent of US-China rivalry or overstate the prospects for grand China-led schemes like the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet Washington's failure to follow through on initiatives of its own severely undercuts its ability to compete with China or criticise some South-east Asian states for selling out to Beijing.

On the security side, to be fair, regionally there has been much more continuity than the rhetoric might suggest. Indeed, on some issues like counterterrorism and maritime security, there has actually been an acceleration of ongoing US efforts with allies and partners, including Vietnam and the Philippines, which Mr Trump will look to build on during his stops there.

Yet concerns lie elsewhere. The war of words Mr Trump has started with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has unnecessarily increased the risk of miscalculation between Washington and Pyongyang. Meanwhile, wild swings in US-China policy so far have made it difficult for smaller South-east Asian states to read how these big-power dynamics will actually affect them.

These developments are a reminder that even though Mr Trump has carved out time in his schedule for regional summitry in South-east Asia as the United States and Asean commemorate 40 years of partnership this year, his administration has not quite found its footing in North-east Asia, which he will look to do with his stops in Seoul and Beijing.

Added to this is the fear that the Trump administration, in confronting security threats such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Iran, could once again become embroiled in a quagmire in another region that will take some of the US attention away from South-east Asia, and Asia more generally, as we have seen repeatedly since the end of the Cold War.

On democracy and human rights, the Trump team has been relatively quiet so far even as the regional outlook got bleaker. Though US agencies continue to routinely address issues as they come up, from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to the democratic crackdown in Cambodia, the lack of White House attention in this area has been clear, even though it may be unsurprising, given Mr Trump's own issues in this area. That silence might be a relief for some South-east Asian states that have long grown weary of Washington's sermonising. And it has certainly allowed the Trump administration to make some inroads with regional states that even the Obama administration shied away from, as evidenced by the White House receptions that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak both got.

Yet not finding the right balance on rights soon would be a mistake. It will leave the administration vulnerable to criticism and open the door to other actors within the US foreign policymaking process, particularly Congress, to either limit or complicate bilateral ties.

The risk of this will only grow next month with Mr Trump's stops in Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have already registered concerns on this score.

Of course, it is still early days. It is worth remembering that it took nearly two years for a conventional, functional Obama administration to get its so-called Asia "rebalance" strategy publicly rolled out, and that similar concerns existed at the outset on issues ranging from China to trade.

Expecting a rather unconventional and somewhat dysfunctional Trump administration to have clear answers on its South-east Asia policy in less than a year might be a bit premature. But that will not prevent the questions from being asked as Mr Trump makes his first Asean voyage next month.

  • The writer is associate editor of The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, DC, and a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, researching Asian security issues and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Questions on policy linger as Trump heads east '. Subscribe