S-E Asia-US ties: Beware slippery road ahead

Though US President Donald Trump's first year in office has been less tumultuous for South-east Asian countries than feared, 2017 nonetheless proved to be a year of disruptive change for US engagement with the region. As we pass the one-year mark on Jan 20 and head into the next, what lies ahead?

Though the level of US engagement was nowhere near as comprehensive as that seen under Mr Trump's predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, the current administration deserves credit for some positive moves, including the early announcement that Mr Trump would attend the first round of Asian summitry and granting four South-east Asian leaders White House visits.

But these moves also pale in comparison to the disruptions at home and abroad that also impacted Washington's ties with South-east Asian states. Some of this was evident within the US' Asia policy itself, from Mr Trump's protectionist stance on trade to the swings in US-China ties to his last-minute scheduling changes during the Asean Summit in Manila. These have been paired with disruption at both the domestic level as well as in broader US foreign policy.

Domestically, everything from Mr Trump's own tweets to feuds among factions in Trumpworld have created a sense of dysfunction that makes it difficult even for some seasoned South-east Asian diplomats to make sense of what all these mean for actual policy.

Meanwhile, developments in wider American foreign policy - from the travel ban seen as targeted at Muslims to the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital - have angered certain segments of populations, particularly in Muslim-majority South-east Asian states Indonesia and Malaysia. The moves also heightened fears in some Asean capitals about Washington once again becoming involved in another Middle Eastern quagmire.

Looking ahead, are we in for further disruptions and distractions?

Some in Trumpworld are quick to point to some reasons for optimism, noting, for instance, that more key personnel will finally be appointed to Asia policy posts to help steady the ship in a rather unconventional administration. Singapore's chairmanship of Asean is also considered a steadying factor.

Yet there is also reason to suggest the disruptions could continue and perhaps even worsen this year.

For starters, the administration's focus on the upcoming mid-term elections in November suggests it is unlikely that Mr Trump will diverge significantly from his "America First" agenda this year that worries South-east Asian policymakers, especially on trade. Regional developments could also exacerbate the existing level of disruption. Though the anxiety on this front tends to be focused on North Korea, there are other concerns too, including the possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping, having consolidated his power at home, could make further aggressive moves in the South China Sea at the expense of South-east Asian claimant states and US interests.

South-east Asia itself could contribute to this disruption as well. With so many states going through domestic transitions this year - with general elections in Malaysia and Cambodia and local elections in Indonesia, in addition to ongoing transitions in Thailand and Myanmar - hiccups could further complicate US ties with them, as we have already seen with limited US sanctions against Cambodia and Myanmar.

Added to all these is the possibility of a major crisis either at home or in another part of the world that could distract US attention from Asia. That could stem not just from the administration being consumed by an attack on the US homeland or greater American military intervention in the Middle East, but also from paralysis following Democratic inroads in the upcoming mid-term elections, and perhaps even the dogged pursuit of impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump until his term ends, even if it ultimately fails.

So even if the Trump administration continues to make efforts towards improving ties with individual countries in South-east Asia, a question mark hangs over whether there will be a focused engagement with the region in the coming year.

• The writer is associate editor of The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'S-E Asia-US ties: Beware slippery road ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe