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  • US Security Relations with Southeast Asia in the Trump Administration
  • Catharin Dalpino (bio)

Southeast Asia did not figure in the 2016 US presidential campaign, and it has not emerged as a foreign policy focus in the early days of the Trump administration. Barring a major terrorist attack against US interests emanating from the region, Southeast Asia is not likely to be a priority in the administration and will receive less attention from the White House than it did in the Obama administration. Some benign neglect may benefit US–Southeast Asia relations, as long as they are left in the hands of experienced officials who are allowed to exercise some degree of judgement. However, it is not possible at this point to determine if this will be the case.

A More Military Approach to Government

President Trump has signalled his emphasis on military affairs and his confidence in the US military in two important ways. He has appointed generals — two recently retired and one serving — to top national security positions: Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor; retired general James Matthis as Secretary of Defense; and retired general John F. Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security. [End Page 3]

Equally, if not more significant, the administration’s budget submission to Congress for Fiscal Year 2018 seeks a 10 per cent increase in military spending — amounting to US$54 billion — to the detriment of allocations to non-military agencies such as the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. It is unlikely that Congress will consent fully to allowing these two foreign affairs agencies to bear the brunt of this change, but through his initial budget, Trump has communicated a clear message about his worldview and his priorities.

The US military has generally opposed budget cuts to the State Department, on the grounds that defence cooperation with other countries and the overall protection of US interests abroad requires a strong diplomatic effort. A reduction of funds to non-military foreign affairs agencies could be particularly harmful to US relations with Southeast Asia. The threat environment in Southeast Asia is lower in comparison to the Cold War era, and views of the United States in younger generations are based less on Washington’s willingness to defend the region and more on its interest in supporting its economic goals.

Some of the damage to US “soft power” caused by a greater emphasis on military relations might be mitigated if, as some Southeast Asian governments hope, Washington offers enhanced bilateral trade agreements. However, historically the negotiation of such agreements has raised nationalist hackles in Southeast Asia (one example being the doomed US–Thailand free trade agreement in the mid-2000s), requiring a compensatory diplomatic effort.

Reassuring Allies

As with other US military alliances, US security alliances with Thailand and the Philippines will not escape the scrutiny of the Trump administration, but neither are they likely to receive undue negative attention. There are no significant burden-sharing issues in the US–Thailand alliance, the main focus of which is on the annual Cobra Gold and smaller combined exercises. The United States depends upon Thailand for access to bases for refuelling and equipment repairs, and for flyover rights. With Thailand facing no major security threat, it can be argued that the United States presently benefits from the alliance more than Thailand. A shift to a greater emphasis on the military could in fact bring slight improvements to the alliance, which has suffered since the 2014 coup. There was some indication of this in February 2017 when US Pacific Command [End Page 4] (PACOM) Commander Admiral Harry B. Harris opened the Cobra Gold exercises, making him the first high-ranking US military official to visit the country since the 2014 coup.

Managing the US–Philippine alliance in the Trump era will be more difficult, not least because President Rodrigo Duterte is at least as mercurial as Donald Trump. Both are inclined to make inflammatory, off-the-cuff public statements. It will take some time before US–Philippine security relations in the era of these two new presidents becomes clear. However, day-to-day relations in the alliance appear to be largely unchanged. Although Duterte...


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