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  • Deal-makers and Spoilers: Trump and Regime Security in Southeast Asia
  • Natasha Hamilton-Hart (bio)

The early days of the Trump administration have shown him to be what he appeared to be during the campaign and in his earlier career: narcissistic, capricious and willing to play to the anxieties and prejudices of the crowd. Although his administration remains far from fully formed — as of mid-February 2017, Trump had nominated just 34 officials for 549 positions, and only 14 of his cabinet nominees had been confirmed — its basic contours are clear enough. He has chosen a cabinet and advisory team that includes people who advocate greater protections and freedoms for US businesses, who have expressed extreme anti-Muslim and socially conservative attitudes and who deny that humans are responsible for climate change. The administration has taken bellicose positions against key trading partners, including Mexico and China, and threatened further escalation of trade confrontation and retaliation against US firms that do not respond to the call to put “America First”. Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multilateral trade agreement that had formed the main economic plank of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.

Added to these damaging policy positions, there is the promise of an unconventional and confrontational approach to policy-making. [End Page 42] In the words of one observer, the White House team looks “less like a professional political operation than a mediaeval court with various barons and a crown prince and princess”.1 While the personal whims of the President capture attention, his presidency is a reflection of a more deep-seated crisis in the United States, where there has been a break-down in the social foundations that underpinned US leadership of a liberalizing and (more or less) rules-based world order.2 Trump’s election “reflects a crisis of the US state, with the erosion of the legitimacy of political elites, representative institutions and the globalist orientation that has long dominated US politics. This crisis may have significant consequences for the so-called ‘rules-based’ world order.”3 When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the American public had elected the president whom they felt best represented them, he may have unintentionally captured the foundational rupture in the United States that Trump represents.4

For Southeast Asia’s ruling elites, the Trump presidency is dual-edged. The region’s leaders may have felt they had little choice but to express an interest in working constructively with the new administration, but for some there are reasons to believe that the warmth accorded to the new president was not entirely feigned. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak proudly displayed Trump’s commendation of him as his “favourite Prime Minister”,5 while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed admiration for Trump, in terms that echoed his own crass performances.6

In a region where ruling elites and their supporters have prospered under the order established by the United States during the Cold War,7 it is perhaps surprising that greater alarm has not been made publicly known now that America seems intent on undoing that order. An increase in US unilateralism appears as one of the few near-certainties of the Trump administration.8 Although many Southeast Asians have every reason to view the new US government with great trepidation,9 the region’s ruling elites also have reason to view Trump as relatively benign with respect to the effect of his administration on their own ability to remain in power. The regime security of governments in Southeast Asia is likely to be bolstered in the short term by Trump, while the more damaging effects of his policies appear distant.

The political comfort that a Trump presidency offers to many of Southeast Asia’s political leaders can be traced to the certainty that US scrutiny and criticism of their performance on human rights, respect for democratic freedoms and the rule of law are likely to [End Page 43] be negligible under Trump.10 This is a region where several leaders are implicated in scandals alleging gross corruption (Malaysia), a programme of extra-judicial state-sanctioned killing (Philippines) and...


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pp. 42-49
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