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US-Asean ties headed for strategic drift, says Obama's Asia adviser

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Evan Medeiros urges countries in the region to have patience, not overreact and keep engaging with the Trump administration

Will Asean be forgotten by the incoming administration of United States President-elect Donald Trump?

How will the regional grouping fare in the ongoing tussle between America and China?

And how should the region deal with the unpredictability of the Trump administration?

These and other questions are doing the rounds in circles concerned about the direction of US-Asia ties, with Mr Trump's tweets, actions and appointments doing little to assuage concerns since his surprise win in the Nov 8 presidential election.

Dr Evan Medeiros, the man who steered the Obama administration's "strategic rebalance" towards Asia, thinks that the region might witness a drift within itself and in ties with Washington. He worries Asean countries might end up having to choose between the US and China, while the pursuit of protectionist policies by the incoming US administration may not bode well for the region.

Dr Medeiros, who was outgoing President Barack Obama's top adviser on Asia and coordinated America's policies towards this region, shared his views in an interview with The Straits Times last week. He was here to meet businessmen and observers to discuss likely directions of US policy towards this region under the Trump administration, in his new role as managing director (Asia) of US-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

The incoming administration is likely to be more concerned about ties with China and Japan in this part of the world, while a focus on North Korea would be necessary because of the nuclear issue.

All this raises questions about where Asean will figure in Mr Trump's foreign policy, he said.

"It's very unclear and I worry about a period of strategic drift within Asean and in the US-Asean relationship, especially if Trump puts TPP to the side," he said.


Dr Evan Medeiros, the man who steered the Obama administration's "strategic rebalance" towards Asia, thinks that the region might witness a drift within itself and in ties with Washington. He recommends that the region be patient while engaging actively with the incoming Trump administration on Asia-US ties. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

TPP is the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement between 12 countries, including the US but excluding China, which has been under negotiation for five years. Mr Trump has threatened to scrap the deal.

None of the incoming President's key advisers has "any interest or deep experience in Asia", except Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, who spent time in Singapore and is aware of the South China Sea issue because of ExxonMobil's investments in Vietnam, Dr Medeiros said. Mr Tillerson is the former CEO of ExxonMobil.

"So, the question is, how much time and energy is Trump going to devote to Asia? He has an opportunity in 2017 because Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit) is going to be in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit is going to be in the Philippines. Will Trump go to one, will he go to both, and what will he take away from those experiences? We don't know yet."

The appointment of Professor Peter Navarro to a new role, however, might be interesting, Dr Medeiros said. Prof Navarro, a well-known China critic who wrote the book Death By China, will lead the newly created White House National Trade Council andhas the task of working on trade policies to shrink America's trade deficit, expand growth and help stop the exodus of jobs from US shores.

EXPECT US-CHINA VOLATILITY

"Usually, when you give somebody that kind of new role it's because you want to give them some influence, which is one of the reasons why I think we should all expect some volatility in the US-China relationship in the first year," Dr Medeiros said.

Mr Trump has already taken a different tack on the Taiwan issue, and said the One China policy is up for negotiation. He is going to be aggressive on trade issues and has already criticised China on its North Korea policy as well. "That's a lot to take on in the first year," Dr Medeiros said, adding that the confrontational approach might put countries in the region in difficult, awkward positions and force them to choose between Washington and Beijing.

This is just what the Obama administration had tried to avoid by pushing for a multi-dimensional trade and investment liberalisation policy under TPP that would have led to more structural reforms and active defence and security arrangements, he added.

It would have meant more cooperation with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, while allowing for a robust relationship with China and Asean autonomy even as it worked with the US.

"I worry we will lose that situation under a Trump administration," said Dr Medeiros.

It will also mean a shift from all the goodwill earned as part of the Asia "pivot" policy under Mr Obama that saw the US sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with Asean, a resident ambassador of the US being designated for the region and stationed in Jakarta, and later an Asean leaders meeting in the United States, which Dr Medeiros pushed for and ultimately took place last February.

DUTERTE 'OVER-CRANKED' CHINA SHIFT

Dr Medeiros was not perturbed about the changing nature of US-Philippine ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has shown interest in Manila forging closer ties with Beijing.

Manila might soon do a 180-degree turn on US policy once Mr Trump takes charge, he said.

"I think he (Mr Duterte) recognises that he over-cranked in shifting towards China.

"The Filipino population is quite pro-US for historic and cultural reasons.

"I think they are quite sceptical of China, so my expectation is that he will use the opportunity of Trump's inauguration to do a pivot and re-embrace the US," he said.

Asia should witness closer ties between Washington and New Delhi while Tokyo has an opportunity to play a leadership role in the region, Dr Medeiros said.

The big worry remains the widening rift with Beijing and he expects tensions with Beijing to persist over the entire tenure of the Trump administration.

"Nobody really debates in the US that China is important to American interests.

"What people debate about is what mix of strategies allows you to shape Chinese behaviour. And I think Trump feels as if China economically is cheating and breaking trade rules and trade laws.

"He wants to take a variety of trade actions to get them to change their practices: Open up their markets, make it more accessible for American companies to invest."

Dr Medeiros noted: "Trump has a more transactional and unilateral approach and he focuses on what's good for America.

"This approach will mean that trade and investment will be at the top of the agenda."

But he added: "Will he follow the path of past governments like the Reagan administration or the Clinton administration in which there's a deterioration in the first two years as a new president tries to figure out what mix of strategies works with China and then, because it results in so much instability and undermines US interests, that they revert back to a mainstream, more balanced approach?"

Dr Medeiros said: "It's possible, it's too early to tell" - adding that Mr Trump is not somebody who is known for compromising or backing down.

However, if protectionist policies mean that the American economy looks weak and poorly managed, it will not be good for US-Asia ties.

"Because fundamentally Asia wants to deal with strong allies, and not just militarily strong ones, but ones that are leading the world in terms of growth, prosperity and fundamentally innovation, which is one of America's greatest strengths," he added.

So how should Asia deal with the Trump administration?

"Patience. Give the Trump administration time to get the top policymakers into place, to get them into office and to understand how they look at American interests.

"My second recommendation is: Don't overreact because it's going to take him and his administration time to sort out their Asia policy.

"Many of the Trump people are from outside the mainstream Republican establishment.

"Third, engage them as much as possible. See this as an opportunity to teach them and educate them about the importance of South-east Asia to American interests.

"The arguments for Asean-US ties are very, very compelling but they are not normal and natural, especially for a leader like Trump who doesn't have a lot of experience in the Asia-Pacific."

Singapore has a leadership opportunity here to lead within Asean to ensure that Asean understands that it's going to go through a period when the US might not be as engaged, he said.

"It's worth Singapore taking a leadership role among the TPP 11 countries, to make sure that TPP doesn't get cast away.

And then just to reach out to the US as much as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'US-Asean ties headed for strategic drift, says Obama's Asia adviser'. Print Edition | Subscribe