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  • Roundtable: The Trump Presidency and Southeast Asia
  • Ian Storey and Mustafa Izzuddin, Associate Editor

Trump, US policy in Southeast Asia, multilateralism, ASEAN, US–China relations

As in other parts of the world, Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 US presidential election came as a major shock to Southeast Asia. Few observers had seriously countenanced a Trump win, and what it might mean for Southeast Asia, the wider Asia-Pacific region and the liberal world order. Many, perhaps most, had expected Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to emerge as the victor, and thus, by and large, to see a continuation of the policies implemented by President Barack Obama, including his signature “pivot” to Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular. Regional shock quickly gave way to anxiety, even alarm. Given Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric during the campaign, what would the new administration’s approach be to regional security issues such as the South China Sea, ASEAN-led forums, defence and military diplomacy, and multilateral trading arrangements?

Shortly after Trump’s victory, the editors of Contemporary Southeast Asia commissioned nine leading regional experts — Catharin Dalpino, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Satu Limaye, Yuen Foong Khong, Ja Ian Chong, Walter Lohman, Natasha Hamilton-Hart, William Tow and Evi Fitriani — to consider the potential implications for Southeast Asia, its people, governments, security arrangements and economic growth prospects. Although the new administration had only been in office for a few months, drawing on Trump’s discourse during the campaign, and some of his early appointments, our nine experts were able to identify several key themes that will impact Southeast Asia over the next four years. These include: the management of US–China relations and the extent to which trade and security tensions might spill over into Southeast Asia; whether middle powers such as Australia and Japan might have to assume a greater burden for regional security in the face of China’s rising power; what America’s stepped-up campaign against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) will mean for Southeast Asia, especially the Muslim-majority states; and what the Trump administration’s [End Page 1] seeming aversion to multilateralism, both in terms of political relations and trade arrangements, means for ASEAN and its ten member states.

Three key preliminary observations can be discerned at this juncture. First, as Trump has a penchant for deal-making, transactionalism may well redefine the nature of America’s working relationship with ASEAN under a Trump presidency. Underpinning this transactional interconnection is less about what Trump’s America can offer Southeast Asia, but more about what the region can offer Trump’s America to benefit the American people. If no deal can be struck to either protect or advance US national interests, Trump is less likely to take serious notice of Southeast Asia.

Second, Obama’s pivot to Asia is more or less dead in the water for three reasons. One, the pivot is an Obama legacy issue and Trump’s actions since taking office suggest that he is intent on dismantling that legacy. Two, Trump’s withdrawal of America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) dealt a major blow to Obama’s strategy as it was the central economic plank of his Asian pivot. Three, Trump’s preoccupation with combating ISIS means that much of the focus of his presidency, at least in the immediate term, will be on the Middle East at the expense of other regions including Asia, much less Southeast Asia.

Third, the Trump team has yet to craft a coherent Asia policy. This breeds geopolitical and geoeconomic uncertainty vis-à-vis America’s allies and friends in Asia, including those in Southeast Asia. Moreover, this lack of policy coherence leaves Southeast Asian countries in a quandary as regards the future trajectory of US–China relations. This engenders ambiguity and anxiety in keeping the regional balance of power at an equilibrium, which is necessary for preserving regional security.

In sum, the authors of this Roundtable have set in motion the debate on what the Trump phenomenon means for Southeast Asia, not least with the guiding question: Does Southeast Asia need Trump’s America more than Trump’s America needs Southeast Asia, or can there exist a...


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