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  • Southeast Asia and the Trump Administration: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
  • Thitinan Pongsudhirak (bio)

As the weeks of his presidency grow into months, President Donald J. Trump’s initial isolationist leanings have morphed into knee-jerk internationalism under an “America First” geostrategic mantra “to make America great again”. Ushering in the most controversial presidential transition in recent memory, Trump has catalyzed the geopolitical tectonic power shifts that have been underway since at least the turn of the new century. While his cordial rhetoric towards Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has spawned myriad challenges for the European Union’s dealings with the Kremlin — with knock-on effects for the remaking of the broader Middle East — Trump’s tough talk on China will guarantee heightened tensions in Asia, from the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Straits to the South China Sea. As China pushes back and continues to test America’s mettle under Trump, countries in both Northeast and Southeast Asia need US allies to be more proactive, particularly Japan and Australia. Absent America’s credible and demonstrable force and willingness to use it, and unless US middle-power allies step up [End Page 9] their counterbalancing efforts, the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will have little choice but to accommodate China and eke out the best possible deals because of their lack of leverage.

China’s consistent and predictable resolve to test America’s uncertain commitment has been on conspicuous display over the past decade of growing geopolitical rivalry. Under President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” (later renamed the “rebalance”) strategy, China first annexed Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 and in 2013–14 proceeded to turn the seven features it occupies in the Spratly Islands into large artificial islands complete with military installations, while the ASEAN claimant states protested in vain. In response, China shrewdly kept ASEAN off balance by pitting its non-claimant allies, particularly Cambodia, against the claimant states led by the Philippines. As it reaches its fifty-year milestone, ASEAN finds itself divided largely between its mainland and maritime members; the former more beholden to China’s preferences but the latter more at odds. Such a dichotomy was evident when the Philippines alone countered China by challenging China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea at an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague in January 2013, and won an overwhelming legal victory in July 2016. This landmark international ruling denied Beijing its so-called “historic rights” and castigated the environmental damage China had caused in the Spratlys. But China ignored it, while the Obama administration reacted with perfunctory statements about the importance of complying with international law even though the United States itself has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Perhaps sensing Obama’s shallow “rebalance” rhetoric, China stood by and stuck to its creeping conquest of the South China Sea, while newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte changed his country’s geopolitical playbook and openly courted Beijing. In fact, Duterte’s manoeuvre was in line with Southeast Asia’s overall appeasement of China. Thailand — a US treaty ally like the Philippines — sought succour from Beijing after its military coup in May 2014, the country’s second putsch in less than a decade, while Brunei, Cambodia and Laos — the smallest ASEAN members — invariably toed China’s line on the South China Sea. After Duterte bit the bullet by wooing China and receiving a US$24 billion investment package in return, and the lifting of the blockade of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, Malaysian Prime Minister [End Page 10] Najib Razak took his turn and came back from Beijing with a comparable sum of infrastructure and investment pledges.1 Duterte’s and Najib’s overtures towards Beijing broadly mirrored similar moves by Indonesia and Vietnam.

China, in other words, has been winning in Southeast Asia by picking off ASEAN member states one by one. On its own, no Southeast Asian state can afford to stand up to Beijing. The only way to see Duterte’s gamble and Southeast Asia’s concessions to be justifiable is if China were to reciprocate by agreeing to a...


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