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  • Trump’s Education and Southeast Asia
  • Yuen Foong Khong (bio)

Is President Donald Trump educable? Much lies on the answer to this question when it comes to the domestic and foreign policies of his administration. At this early stage of the Trump administration, one can only make partially informed guesses, and this is the spirit in which this essay is written. I would wager that Trump is more educable on security issues than he is on economic issues. If that is the case, we should expect to see more continuity than change in the administration’s approach to security in East and Southeast Asia on the one hand, but, on the other hand, change — in worrisome directions — rather than continuity is likely to characterize the administration’s economic policies towards the region. I conclude by noting that contentious economic relations between the United States and East/Southeast Asia are also likely to spill over into the security realm, making the region tenser and more prone to military crises than during the Obama years.

By educable I mean the willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints, digest the information and change one’s mind. Because Trump’s views on security are less well formed, to the point of being naïve, I surmise he is more open to listening to the views of those he respects, and therefore more liable to change his mind. The key example here is his view on waterboarding. In his battle [End Page 22] charge against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), candidate Trump favoured bringing back waterboarding to extract information from captured terrorists. One meeting with retired General James Mattis later, Trump changed his mind, on the strength of Mattis’ quip that “I’ve never found it to be useful…. give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” If Mattis, now confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Defense, is able to persuade his boss on the other major security challenges — from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to China’s rise to the South China Sea — one would expect more continuity (using the Obama years as the baseline) than change from the US side.

Trump’s views on economics, however unorthodox, are “better” formed and more firmly held, perhaps because as a successful businessman, he believes he knows his economics. He laments the hollowing out of America’s manufacturing industries, blames trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and countries such as China and Mexico for the phenomenon, vowing to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese and even American firms intent on outsourcing their manufacturing to cheaper locales. Trump’s economic theory of what has sapped away America’s (economic) greatness will be harder to challenge. His key appointees responsible for economic matters, from, Robert Lighthizer (US Trade Representative), Wilbur Ross (Commerce), Peter Navarro (National Trade Council) and Stephen Bannon (Strategy) all seem to reinforce his convictions. Confronted by this formidable phalanx, his more mainstream economic advisers, Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), Gary Cohn (National Economic Council) and Terry Branstad (Ambassador to China) will have greater difficulty getting a hearing for their views. On economics, therefore, Trump seems less educable. This does not bode well for Southeast Asia.

The fate of America’s Asian military alliances and strategic partnerships in the Trump administration is the central security issue for East and Southeast Asia. Candidate Trump’s threat to abrogate America’s military alliances with Japan and South Korea — if the two East Asian powers did not reimburse America for the cost of protecting them — caused widespread consternation in East and Southeast Asia. If Japan and South Korea acquired nuclear weapons in the absence of the American nuclear umbrella, so be it, according to candidate Trump. America’s alliances with Thailand and the Philippines did not feature prominently in the campaign, probably [End Page 23] because there are few American troops based in those two Southeast Asian countries. Trumpian “logic” would suggest, however, that the latter would also be expected to pay for American protection. Ditto for those places hosting US naval vessels such as...


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