Trump May Be a Good Fit for Southeast Asia’s Strongmen

On 10 November, Donald Trump will arrive in Danang, central Vietnam, the same city where American combat troops first landed 52 years ago. He will need to move beyond half-century-old memories to demonstrate the United States’ continuing relevance, however. Today, for the disparate regimes in Southeast Asia, the US is two things above all: a provider of diplomatic and military leverage and a market. The presence of US Pacific Command and a small army of American diplomats in the region also allow them to balance their diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. On the economic side, the 10 members of ASEAN enjoy an annual goods-trade surplus with the US: it was $83 billion in 2016.

On security, President Trump’s new ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ is more similar to the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ pursued by the Obama administration than Trump would likely ever admit. We should expect renewed commitments to the old framework of ‘allies, partners and friends’ coupled with a new emphasis on the ‘Indo-Pacific’: encouraging countries inside and outside Southeast Asia concerned about the implications of China’s rise to work with one another. There will also be commitments to maintain and even increase the US’s naval presence in the region and to finance Southeast Asian countries to improve their own naval and coastguard forces.

The trading surplus, though, has seemingly turned into a vulnerability for Southeast Asian governments. President Trump has made it his mission to significantly reduce the trade surpluses other countries run with the US. Point One of President Trump’s new ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ will be for ‘fairer’ trade – fairer at least for the manufacturing workers of Middle America. An executive order signed on 31 March targeted Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (among others) for investigation over their allegedly ‘unfair’ trading practices.

So far, however, not much has come from that executive order. Instead, the leaders of those countries, and others, have trekked to Trump and cut deals directly. The prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore declared their national airlines would buy Boeing and their Vietnamese counterpart announced a big deal with General Electric (and no one seemed to care that it had actually been agreed a year earlier, when Barack Obama was president). Thailand has proposed a ‘strategic partnership committee’ to boost trade.

And there will be one other major difference with the previous administration. Whereas Obama prioritized the advance of democracy and human rights, Trump’s strategy will not. Expect to hear instead discussion of a ‘pragmatic’ approach to these issues.

For a quarter of a century, from the end of the Cold War until very recently, the US enjoyed a ‘unipolar moment’ in Southeast Asia. In almost all areas of government policy, the direction of travel was towards openness, liberalization and integration. Wars disappeared, economies grew, societies developed and governments paid greater attention to their rights of their peoples. Things were going America’s way.

Now, with the rise of China, the region is entering a new era of geopolitical competition. This means that decisions about whether to support good governance, political reform and human rights in Southeast Asia will increasingly have to pass through a ‘geopolitical filter’. Liberalization and reform will no longer be ends in themselves but an optional benefit to be incorporated into American policy where convenient.

In this sense, Trump may be a good fit for Southeast Asia right now. Under Obama, relations with several key US allies and partners cooled significantly. The military coup in Thailand in 2014, revelations about massive high-level corruption in Malaysia and the extra-judicial killings of thousands of drug users in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte all created obstacles for an American administration committed to promoting good governance. Under Trump, interests will outweigh values; relations with Southeast Asia’s strongmen leaders will become easier.

If they can also find some way to buy more American products (and fewer Chinese ones) it could turn into what Donald Trump might describe as a beautiful friendship.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.

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