- “Signs are Taken for Wonders. ‘We Would See a Sign’” 1: The Trump Administration and Southeast Asia
A month into the tumultuous Trump administration, no key officials directly relevant to US–Southeast Asia relations had been nominated, although a torrent of Tweets as well as spasmodic statements and a handful of high-level official visits provided clues, albeit mixed, about the prospects for ties between the United States and Southeast Asia — a region that is among America’s top five global trade partners, the most important destination in Asia for foreign direct investment, home to two treaty allies and a growing number of politico-security partners, and a location of geo-political, geo-economic and order contestation among multiple major powers.2
In such uncertain circumstances, it may be useful to consider prospective US–Southeast Asia relations through the prism of six unique elements of the Trump administration and the six “key lines of action” of the Obama administration’s arguably most comprehensive, integrated and active Southeast Asia policy since 1945. Surprisingly, an analysis based on these two prisms lead to an assessment arguing more for continuity than change, less drama than fireworks and more professionalism than ad hocism in US–Southeast Asia relations. [End Page 15]
The first unique characteristic of the Trump administration is its ongoing divergences with the “mainstream” Republican and Democratic foreign and defence policy leaderships in Congress. Tellingly, even during the fractious presidential campaign, a bipartisan group of Congressmen attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2016 in Singapore as then candidate Trump was raising the prospect of both abandoning and asking more of alliances, encouraging nuclear proliferation and publicly contemplating negotiating directly with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.3 Recently, a bipartisan congressional resolution backing the US–Australia alliance was issued after a call went awry between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.4 The combination of Southeast Asia’s apparently relatively low priority to the new administration, and the general consensus among key mainstream members of Congress about a range of issues ranging from alliances and partnerships to human rights and security assistance, suggest that a degree of continuity rather than disjuncture is likely to prevail. Similarly, a second feature of the new administration, the gap between the White House and its cabinet appointments for the Secretaries of Defense and State, suggest that those bureaucracies, working closely with Congress, will also pursue more continuity than breaks from recent policies. Possible changes, such as clearer, more robust freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea would be less of a “break” from past policy than its “proper” implementation. More, regular and distinct freedom of navigation operations has broad support in the US policy community, but is unlikely to be uniformly welcomed across Southeast Asia and not at all by China.5
A third unique factor has been President Trump’s focus on “transactionalism” or “deal-making” and corollary diminution of a commitment to a “liberal order” approach to foreign relations including rules, norms, values and institutions. How this might play out in Southeast Asia is unclear. On the one hand, it is not easy to see what a significant “deal” with Southeast Asia or its constituent countries might be; unlike, say, with China or North Korea. On the other hand, fewer calls from Washington for tight adherence to “liberal” rules, norms, values and institutions would not be unwelcome to the more authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia.
A fourth unique factor is the lack of President Trump’s pronouncements about commitment to US leadership — the flip side of his declared “only America first” approach. A planned huge military [End Page 16] build-up is intended to be the substitute for active international leadership. This is likely to be of significant concern to Southeast Asia which requires an engaged and active US not only for specific benefits of security, diplomatic and economic assistance, but also as an option for balancing/strategic autonomy. American “leadership” expressed only as a military build-up could compensate for retreat in other areas but would likely be seen as insufficient. A fifth factor, the Trump Administration’s desire for close relations with Russia...