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  • U.S.–Southeast Asia Relations under the Trump Administration
  • Joseph Chinyong Liow (bio)

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States has occasioned intense discussion over the likely shape of his administration's foreign policy toward Southeast Asia. Two broad views have emerged in this regard. The first contends that the political neophyte will attempt to make good on his campaign promises to reconsider U.S. commitments to friends and allies, and this will lead him to depart from prevailing policy toward East Asia and upend the order that has undergirded the region's prosperity and economic dynamism. A second view maintains that, after an initial period of bluster, good sense will prevail and policy toward Asia will fall back into a more familiar pattern as a result of geostrategic realities, combined with the appointment of cabinet members who by most measures are of the order of previous incumbents. Needless to say, the dust has yet to settle on this debate, and it continues to be followed with great interest—not to mention a fair amount of trepidation—around the world, not least in Southeast Asia.

The first part of this essay highlights the key differences that have emerged in U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia under the Obama and Trump administrations. The essay then concludes by discussing the outlook for U.S.–Southeast Asia relations and identifying several reasons for concern.

Differences between the Obama and Trump Administrations' Policies toward Asia

The Barack Obama years were heady days for Southeast Asia. Not since the ill-fated Vietnam War era had the United States paid as much attention and devoted as many resources to the region. Obama's Asia policy, christened the "pivot" and later the "rebalance," saw the United States initiate the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation established by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the way to joining the East Asia Summit. During his presidency, Obama visited all Southeast Asian countries except for Brunei (which he would have visited in October 2013 if [End Page 53] not for the U.S. government shutdown). To demonstrate the comprehensive nature of the rebalance, the Obama administration joined—and eventually led—discussions for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was pitched as the "gold standard" for global trade and involved twelve Pacific Rim countries, including four from Southeast Asia. At the time, the hope and ambition surrounding the TPP also held out the prospect of other regional states coming on board in the future.

With the inauguration of the Trump administration in January, Southeast Asian countries found themselves staring at the prospect of a considerable rollback of U.S. interest in the region. In nursing these fears, they were not alone. U.S. allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia shared similar concerns. Candidate Trump's decision to adopt a cantankerous line toward China is hardly unusual for U.S. presidential campaigns. What caused greater consternation was his suggestion that he would withdraw the United States from the TPP and review the country's security commitments to regional allies South Korea and Japan. Trump did little to dispel these concerns following his electoral victory in November. He chose to break with tradition and receive a phone call from the independence-leaning Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. This was followed by capricious comments about possibly reviewing Washington's long-standing one-China policy. Days after assuming office, Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP by means of executive order. The appointment of China hawks to key positions on trade did little to dampen the growing adversarial climate. Meanwhile, during his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that efforts should be made to prevent China from having access to the artificial islands it had built in the South China Sea, raising concerns that Sino-U.S. relations were headed for conflict.

Four and a half months since his inauguration, President Trump's approach to East Asia appears to be more considered than many pundits and observers were expecting. Visits by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence to...


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