It is ironic and counter-intuitive, but the administration of President Donald Trump is making more inroads for the United States into South-east Asia than the neighbourhood might have expected. His predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, invested enormous energy and the entire geostrategy of his two presidential terms into a much-touted "pivot to Asia" in rebalancing American interests and resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Yet Mr Trump, a walking controversy with a rambunctious leadership style and little foreign policy experience, may end up being more effective for US-South-east Asia relations.
During his eight years in office, Mr Obama was respected for his international outlook. His unwavering support for the rules-based liberal global order constructed led to landmark agreements in areas such as climate change and de-nuclearisation. His pivot strategy was anchored around South-east Asia.
Yet it all did not go very far. During the Obama years, it can be said that South-east Asia was "lost" to China. Since 2012, China has taken over a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea, building and stationing military installations and other assets. Despite an international ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to the contrary in July last year, Beijing has kept what it took.
In mainland South-east Asia, China built a chain of dams in the upper reaches of the Mekong River to the detriment of downstream communities in Cambodia and Vietnam. Regional responses to China's belligerence were tepid in the absence of a major counterweight.
At the same time, the authoritarian upsurge in South-east Asia, from Thailand and Cambodia to Malaysia and the Philippines, played into Beijing's hands. The Obama administration promoted democracy and human rights, which became unpalatable to certain regimes in South-east Asia. The manifestations of this neighbourhood's slide into China's shadow included visits of South-east Asian leaders to Beijing, led by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
But now, the US may be re-engaging the region through side doors. The Trump administration appears to privilege interests over values in a transactional fashion. Mr Trump said at his inauguration that the US does not seek to impose its way of life on others, a pledge repeated last month in Saudi Arabia.
For South-east Asia, the Trump reorientation of the Obama pivot has led to personal phone calls and invitations to the leaders of the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to visit the White House, preceded earlier by reassurances that President Trump will make the trip to the East Asia Summit and Asean leaders' meeting in Manila this November, a short hop after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Danang, central Vietnam.
The initial US motive for these calls was to rally allies like Bangkok and Manila and partners such as Singapore to contain North Korea's nuclear threat, but this may well develop into a more re-engaged US geopolitical positioning by the regional summit season.
While none of the three invited leaders has made it to Washington as yet, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has led the way with a first visit to the Trump White House by a South-east Asian leader. It was substantive and symbolic. Not so long ago, the two countries locked horns as sworn enemies in a bitter and ugly ideological war. But last week, Mr Phuc agreed to buy more than US$15 billion (S$20.7 billion) worth of US goods and services, partly to curb the US$32 billion in trade surplus in favour of Vietnam. Clearly, US-Vietnam relations are on the up, and more will come in the lead-up to the Apec summit.
Next may be Thailand's General Prayut Chan-o-cha. Preparations are reportedly under way for a visit next month.
Since Thailand's military coup in May 2014, Thai-US relations have been on the rocks. The Obama team conditioned restoration of bilateral ties on the resumption of democratic rule with elections.
By insisting on elections before bilateral dealings, the Obama administration lost whatever leverage it had with Thailand, as the military took over Thai politics to ensure stability in the wake of street protests and a looming royal succession. Instead, Bangkok moved closer to Beijing out of necessity for superpower recognition. The estrangement in the Thai-US treaty alliance stemmed more from Washington than Bangkok. More alienation of the Thai military regime would hand Bangkok to Beijing, much like how the West lost Burma through sanctions and isolation in the 1990s.
To be sure, such a US turnaround must not be equated with the abandonment of the democratic rights and freedoms which America stands for. But the US has to re-engage and deal with Thailand's military government to regain leverage and manoeuvring room. A similar case might be made for the US' dealing with Mr Duterte and his deadly drug war, with its attendant human rights violations. The point is neither to embrace nor to alienate the Philippine elected strongman to China's benefit, but to engage him in ways that will improve his government's human rights record.
The Trump rebalance of the Obama pivot is overdue, but it should not be overdone. Pursuing interests can yield bargaining chips with South-east Asian regimes, but values on rights and freedoms must not be abandoned. Much of South-east Asia wants the US "back in" with heft in the neighbourhood because it does not want to go "all-in" on China. While it is still early days in the Trump era, the inchoate US-South-east Asia relations are, so far, not so bad.
• The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's pragmatic pivot back to Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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