U.S. President-elect Donald Trump inherits a range of solid policies toward Southeast Asia put in place by President Barack Obama since 2008. Given the fluidity of the regional political and strategic landscape, amid heightened major power competition, it would be a smart move for the incoming U.S. administration to maintain at least a strong element of Obama's approach -- especially concerning ties with the 10-member Association of the Southeast Asian Nations.
Yet, Trump's campaign rhetoric suggested that he may roll back regional engagement. The key test however will be the extent of U.S. engagement in regular regional summits with ASEAN leaders and negotiations on a variety of issues after Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration.
Obama painstakingly deepened Washington's ties with the region to an unprecedented degree, visiting ASEAN countries seven times during his presidency and meeting the organization's leaders 11 times, the greatest number of direct meetings attended by any U.S. president. In addition, since 2010 his administration has shown solidarity with the majority view in ASEAN over the South China Sea and multiple sovereignty disputes between Beijing and ASEAN member states.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton managed to transform the sovereignty issue from a solely ASEAN-China dispute into one that has gained significant international attention. As attention increased, tensions also rose, driving the intensification of activities by claimants on all sides. Washington's strategy of "rebalancing" to Asia was devised in part to augment its economic and security presence in Southeast Asia.
As one of five traditional U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, former Philippine President Benigno Aquino unwaveringly sought Washington's support during this period, rather than relying on ASEAN and its slow diplomatic processes. Manila often viewed ASEAN as a paper tiger that dared not stand up to China. After a standoff in 2012 between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels around the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Washington and Manila swiftly enhanced their security cooperation, increasing maritime security.
As part of the rebalancing policy, the Obama administration pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 other Asia-Pacific countries. After two years of intense negotiations, a deal including four ASEAN countries -- Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam -- was successfully concluded. But the TPP deal prompted other Asian countries, including China, which was excluded from the TPP, to produce a competing trade arrangement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If the Trump administration decides to dump the TPP, as Trump suggested in his election campaign, Asia will pursue RCEP instead -- and the long-term credibility of the U.S. as a supporter of freer trade will suffer immeasurably.
As a newcomer, Trump should selectively maintain Obama initiatives in the region, especially those related to upholding the regional and international rule of law, and initiatives aimed at the advancement of Southeast Asian youth and education. No other foreign leader has gone to this extent to deepen ASEAN ties. A special summit in February at Sunnylands, California reinforced these bonds, and the 17-point joint declaration between U.S. and ASEAN leaders at the summit provides a guideline for the new administration in further cooperation with ASEAN. At a time when the European Union is focusing on Brexit, any deterioration in ties with ASEAN would damage the U.S. economy and weaken its international influence.
It would be a big loss for America if Trump's foreign policy team decides to bypass ASEAN and ignore Obama's achievements. It is worth noting that in his ASEAN outreach strategy, the outgoing president was able to build on the success of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. For instance, Obama promoted links with at least 50,000 ASEAN youngsters under an exchange program, the Young Southeast Asian Student Initiative.
The young people involved in this program -- on both sides of the Pacific -- could serve as a pillar for future U.S.-ASEAN engagement, based on America's democratic tradition and Obama's leadership style.
It would be easy for the U.S. to ignore ASEAN, given its distant geographical position, its diversity and, most of all, the absence of common positions between member states on global issues. The Trump administration's international focus in coming years undoubtedly will be on the Middle East and other hot spots, including China, Japan and South Korea. While tensions in the South China Sea have calmed somewhat, the Korean Peninsula is still mired in uncertainty due to North Korea's nuclear program.
From the regional standpoint, any U.S. policy shift in relation to China, Japan and South Korea would immediately affect ASEAN 's economic growth and integration. In the long term, though, U.S. influence in Southeast Asia would be severely curtailed. Trade volume between ASEAN and U.S. is robust, but is already much smaller than that between ASEAN and China. A shift away from the U.S. alliance and toward China has already occurred in Manila, following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, and other traditional Southeast Asian allies of Washington may feel they face similar choices, including Malaysia and Thailand.
A major test of U.S. policy toward ASEAN will come at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Manila in June 2017, when Trump's choice as the new U.S. Secretary of State will have the opportunity to talk frankly and directly to his or her Southeast Asian counterparts. Whether he or she does so, and what is said, will matter greatly. There will be a further test later in the year, when the Philippines -- which holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship for 2017 -- will chair an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-U. S. diplomatic relations.
For the time being, Trump's attitude toward ASEAN is a mystery. If he decides to forego a personal visit to the fifth U.S.-ASEAN summit, scheduled for early November 2017, ASEAN will conclude that the U.S. no longer regards the group as a valued strategic partner.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based commentator and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
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