The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has not really featured on the agenda of the Donald Trump Administration during his first three months in office. This is not necessarily bad news but “out of sight” can also be “out of mind”.
Under Mr Barack Obama’s watch, the United States’ engagement in South-east Asia advanced substantially as part of Washington’s rebalance towards Asia.
Mr Obama made efforts to make American presence felt in regional mechanisms by joining the East Asia Summit (EAS) and institutionalising the Asean-US Summit.
Mr Obama, to his credit, attended most of these Asean-related summits. Asean-US ties reached a high point in February 2016 when Mr Obama hosted all Asean leaders in the historical Sunnylands estate in California. It was a marked departure from the neglect of Asia under his predecessor, Mr George W Bush.
Three months into the Trump Administration, Mr Obama’s rebalance to South-east Asia has clearly been set aside.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the rebalance’s economic pillar, is dead, while its multilateral plank through US engagement with Asean has been thrown into doubt.
Multilateralism must be based on a broad-minded appreciation of its long-term rewards, which are not always evident in cost-benefit terms.
It also requires a lot of patience and accommodation vis-a-vis various counterparts.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump’s pursuit of “America First” agenda through a transactional approach looks only for immediate gains, leaving little room for Asean-style multilateralism, which focuses on consensual and incremental cooperation.
Questions remain on whether Mr Trump will attend the annual EAS and Asean-US Summit. His presence or absence would send strong signals of the US’ continued engagement with the region, or the lack thereof.
Asian diplomatic culture attaches significance to presence at such meetings, which are seen as important channels for cultivating personal bonds and friendship among the leaders.
A no-show by the American president in a year when the US and Asean mark 40 years as dialogue partners will deal a severe blow to this important relationship.
RISING HARD POWER, DECLINING SOFT POWER
Mr Trump’s recent proposal to increase defence spending by up to US$603 billion and the US’ reaffirmation of security assurances to Japan and South Korea have assuaged concerns over an outright American retreat from Asia. The US’ standing as the security guarantor and strategic balancer remains valid, especially in North-east Asia.
However, American military might does not necessarily translate into political influence, especially in Southeast Asia, where China’s chequebook diplomacy has helped Beijing gain leverage over some countries.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in an interview last year, China uses trade as part of its foreign policy and goes around “with lollipops in its pockets”, whereas the US does not do such things.
The US will therefore have to compete not only through force projection, but also by using its soft power.
In other words, its regional footprint should comprise not only the 7th Fleet but also the reliability of its commitments and active diplomacy in the region.
On the former, the Trump administration has not fared well as its withdrawal from the TPP has dealt a serious blow to the US’ image as a champion of globalisation and open global trade.
On the latter, much remains to be seen, although the optics are not encouraging, including as they do cuts to the State Department budget.
Furthermore, Mr Trump’s travel ban targeting some Middle Eastern countries has caused anxiety among Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia, harking back to the post-9/11 days, when the war against terror also alienated the US from these regional countries.
A US disengagement from Asean, if it happens, would undermine the equilibrium in South-east Asia and push China into geopolitical centrality. More regional countries, left with no other choice, might slip into Beijing’s embrace.
The fact that the Philippines and Thailand, two US allies, have tiptoed towards China’s orbit should not be missed. Mr Trump’s apparent neglect of the region would only perpetuate or accelerate this trend.
On the other end, Sino-US confrontation is not desirable either, since regional countries would be forced to make binary choices and have less room for manoeuvring.
For example, on the South China Sea issue, the rhetoric by Mr Trump and his top officials has been tough, matched by forceful posturing with the latest deployment of the USS Carl Vinson carrier through these choppy waters.
China, meanwhile, is stepping up its military presence in the area. Without Asean as a bridge-builder and honest broker, the likelihood of miscalculations between these major powers may increase.
To be sure, it is too early to paint doomsday scenarios.
There is room for further elaboration and adjustment as Mr Trump’s foreign policy team takes shape. As indicated from the recent summit between Mr Trump and President Xi Jinping, which has helped to stabilise Sino-US relations after a rocky start, the Trump administration is beginning to appreciate geopolitical realities, and the Commander-in-Chief has modified and moderated his positions accordingly.
A potential area of enhanced cooperation between Washington and Asean could be counter-terrorism.
Defeating the Islamic State (IS) and other radical terror groups, including through international partnerships, is one of Mr Trump’s major foreign policy priorities.
This is also a top concern for Southeast Asia — a potential new base for IS as its territory in the Middle East shrinks.
The onus is now on Asean to keep the US engaged, including through an early meeting between Asean foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
It is also important to resist the urge to overreact, since Mr Trump’s statements thus far offer more in terms of posturing than policy.
The constant goal for Asean in this time of uncertainty is to stay united to fully realise the aggregate potential of its 640 million people and its US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion) economy.
A cohesive, stable and prosperous Asean provides a stronger case for Washington to look towards to the region.
For Washington, it will have to outline the new administration’s policy towards the region sooner rather than later. The longer the uncertainty holds, the bigger the opportunity costs are for both sides.
Vice-President Mike Pence’s trip to Indonesia tomorrow, including a visit to the Asean Secretariat, is a good opportunity for both sides to explore opportunities for cooperation and chart the way forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Hoang Thi Ha is a lead researcher (political and security affairs) at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Asean Studies Centre.