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President Donald J. Trump: Meanings and Consequences for Southeast Asia and Thailand

 A “Dream Thailand” Public Forum Series

“President Donald J. Trump: Meanings and Consequences for Southeast Asia and Thailand” 

Friday, 3rd February 2017






Opening Remarks

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

Columnist, The Nation Newspaper

Mr. Kerry K. Gershaneck

Senior Associate,

Pacific Forum CSIS

Mr.Phil Robertson

Deputy Director

Human Rights Watch's Asia Division





Dr. Supavud Saicheua







Managing Director (Head of Research Group)







Phatra Securities Public Company Limited



Speaker and Moderator: 

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Director of ISIS Thailand

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Mr. Phil Robertson


We may be shocked, surprised and angered about the outcome of the election, the United States has a democratic system with a peaceful transition of power, and that must be respected. At this point, it is that democratic system with its checks and balances, and its independent judiciary which is the United States’ last saving grace.

Since Human Rights Watch works in over 90 countries worldwide, most people think that it just focuses on rights abuses in Asia, Africa, Russia and Latin America. However, the research division focused on the United States is its largest. Since Trump was elected on November 9, that division has been working full-time, operating on the principle that we must take what he says seriously. In the lead up to inauguration day, many pundits in the media were speculating that once Trump becomes President, the rhetoric of his campaign speeches would be subdued by the realities of the office. Human Rights Watch never bought into this line of thought. Our motto has been, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” This approach has been vindicated.

Trump’s inauguration speech was arguably the most aggressive and stark in modern history, with naked US nationalism embodied in the cry of “America First.” That marks a death knell for US internationalism and multilateralism for the next four years. As subsequent speeches and policy announcements have followed, it has become evident that we can continue to expect the worst with regards to both domestic and international policy.

Governments, policymakers and businesspersons in Southeast Asia who saw the US as a pillar of stability and continuity will need to recalculate. “Fortress America” will be more divided than it has ever been in history. In Trump’s first two weeks in office, it is quite clear that the divisiveness over issues of culture, economics, and politics is going to intensify. Perhaps that is not surprising when a President is elected by only a narrow margin in three states, but loses the popular vote by over 3 million votes. When that President then claims to have a huge mandate with the ‘biggest’ inauguration crowds, and a fascination with Twitter that is only rivalled by his thin skin and narcissism, this division is understandable. We are at a moment when the ideas of America, what it is and what it stands for will be defined. Trump is both the messenger and a Trojan Horse for a paranoid, insecure and predominantly white America. His victory is one for the forces of reaction, recoiling against the forces of globalization and change, and growing ethnic and cultural diversity. Women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, racist policing and voter rights are on the frontline on what will be a political and cultural war. Stephen Bannon, the guru of the so-called Alt-Right, is sitting at Trump’s right, which will only fuel the fires for division.

The Women’s March, which gathered more people to march on Washington D.C. than those who came to the inauguration, and the spontaneous protests against his visa and refugee bans, are harbingers of the coming war for what America will stand for. Still to come are fights over immigration (and the argument over who will pay for ‘The Wall’), hiring more than 10,000 immigration officers, and taking federal funding away from Sanctuary Cities that refuse to cooperate in the coming crackdown.

Amid all of this domestic division, how can the United States get serious about foreign policy, especially for a region like Southeast Asia which is quite clearly not at the top of anyone’s list in the White House? What does Trump know about Thailand, ASEAN or Southeast Asia? Not a whole lot. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has travelled to all 10 countries in ASEAN, has visited Thailand numerous times as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. But despite 3 million more votes, she is entering retirement in Upstate New York.

It is pretty safe to say that the Asia Pivot of the Obama Administration is over. With that includes the end of America’s engagement with ASEAN. The era of the US President attending ASEAN summits is most likely over and a follow-up invitation to Sunnylands is highly unlikely. The lack of interest in the region will be palpable, most likely worse than was experienced during the presidency of George W. Bush. The US abandonment of the TPP shows further withdrawal from the region, leaving the field increasingly to China. Tensions on trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea lead to very serious concerns that we are entering an undeclared Cold War between the US and China.

In the US Rust Belt, where many of the votes for Trump’s victory came from, China is the trade enemy. Trump is deliberately channeling that anger. China will strike back. The first blow was Cambodia informing the US that it would cancel Angkor Sentinel, the annual joint US-Cambodia armed force exercises. That is a clear shot across the bow of the United States.

Human rights as a principle of US foreign policy will take a knock. The dynamic will be similar to the Cold War period, where the US and Soviets both ignored violations or used human rights as a political tool to attack the other side. Looking around the region, the various leaders who support Trump are those who are flouting basic human rights in the own countries.

The world has also become a lot more difficult for refugees, just at a time when the UNHCR has said that there are now more refugees in the world than any time since World War II. One of Trump’s first actions was to sign an executive order on a travel ban for 7 Muslim-majority countries, suspending the refugee program for 120 days and cutting the number of refugees to be resettled to the United States. Already tough vetting has been stepped up even further, and basic requirements for application have changed, such as now making a requirement for in-person interviews for visas. Foreigners trying to do business in or travel to America will now have to face longer lines, bigger problems and more delays. To many people overseas, Trump’s policy of “America First” looks a lot more like a “Fortress America” policy.

On trade and tariffs, we now have the scrapping of the TPP trade deal, much to the consternation of four ASEAN members, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. Within the TPP, there were also a number of labor regulations provisions which will now be thrown away, which is unfortunate as they would have encouraged critical reforms in the ways that governments treat labor rights in their respective countries.

We are not sure what the policy towards Southeast Asia will be and who is going to run it. Other than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, we know nothing about who will be at the State Department overseeing Asia policy. Tillerson arrives at the State Department with many senior bureaucrats gone, and a dissent memo with over 900 signatures due to Trump’s executive order travel ban. The reality is that we might be waiting quite a while before we can get an indication of what Trump is planning to do in Southeast Asia. In the interim, policy will be unpredictable and will come from a small group of aides in the White House.

What we are worried is that aid will be seriously cut and characterized as ‘welfare for foreigners.’ A number of years ago, the University of Maryland did studies looking at American perceptions of foreign aid, and found that many Americans mistakenly thought that US foreign aid constituted as much as 5-20% of US government budget, when of course it less than 0.1%. It would be easy for Trump to demagogue about this issue to Middle America. Human Rights Watch is now tracking another potential executive order that would cut funding to the UN and its associated agencies. Hold onto your hats.

Mr. Kerry K. Gershaneck

America is and must remain a Pacific nation, with strong economic, military and cultural ties to the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Historically America has shown that commitment. It did not just begin and end with President Obama’s Pivot to Asia. It did not just begin with George H. W. Bush with his ‘East Asia Strategy Initiative’ in the late-1980s. Arguably it goes back to the era of King Rama III in 1833 when America signed its first treaty in Asia with the Kingdom of Siam. US commitment and engagement in the region has been bipartisan and consistent. Will President Trump continue this commitment to the region? The answer is yes, of course he will.

He reaffirmed this commitment as well as concerns about improving relations with Thailand during the campaign. We did not see much about it, but that is the nature of the media. One indicator of President Trump’s commitment to the region is Secretary of Defense Mattis’ visit to Japan and Korea, just 14 days after his inauguration. It is Northeast Asia, not Southeast Asia, but does show the important place that Asia still holds in the Administration’s set of priorities.

It is fair to say that not many people expected Donald J. Trump would become President. Almost everyone missed the signals, especially the degree of voter discontent in the United States. It was a replay of Brexit – the political elites, the media, celebrities, pundits and pollsters were all a bit too smug and comfortable with their pre-conceptions. It was seemingly a given that the outcome of the election would be a landslide for Hillary Clinton.

Was this the most contentious or controversial election in US history? No. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led directly to the American Civil War. Incidentally, Lincoln did not get close to a majority of the vote in that election. Was it the ugliest election in US history? No. Try the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes, who won by just one electoral vote and whose Presidency almost led to another Civil War. If you want vitriolic and nasty, try the 1964 election of Lyndon Johnson. During the campaign, he characterized his opponent Barry Goldwater as a bloodthirsty warmonger. He won by a landslide, and immediately proceeded to enmesh the US in the longest and most divisive war in its history. In 1968, Chicago was a battlefield.

President Trump did not win the popular vote, but that is how it works in America. It has happened in previous US elections. He won the majority of the states, 30 out of 50. He won a massive tally in the electoral college, 306 to Clinton’s 232. He won 62 million votes. Trump’s party also won the US House and Senate by significant majorities. Two-thirds of the states have Republican Governors. This election was not just a victory for Trump, nor a defeat for Clinton. It was a repudiation of eight years of the Obama presidency. It was a stunning rejection by many voters who had eagerly supported Obama in 2008. This victory could be a validation of democracy. Americans rejected their complacent bipartisan ruling class, and replaced it through the voting booth.

The Trump supporters saw an America which has a national debt veering towards USD20 trillion. That debt more than doubled under the Obama administration. They saw that we had historically weak economic growth, with almost 100 million Americans out of work. Millions just gave up looking for jobs. They saw increasing illegal immigration aided and abetted by the US government. They saw that Obama had unconstitutionally tried to give amnesty to many illegals. Worse, the US government took thousands of illegal aliens and deliver them to towns and cities throughout the country without prior consultation or coordination with the state and local officials – this has a huge impact on schools, services and infrastructure. Illegal aliens commit a disproportionate number of crimes against Americans. Trump supporters also saw Obama’s response to the terrorist threat as exceptionally weak. Obama’s policies were perceived as weak, 100 attacks or plots were exposed since 2008. A number of those attacks were by refugees. Under Obama’s presidency, the world has descended into an increasingly dangerous and chaotic place.

On the foreign policy front, Obama was harsh with some of America’s closest friends, like Thailand, Poland and Israel, and strengthening relations with thugs like the Castro brothers in Cuba. Obama’s failure to follow through with his infamous ‘red line’ pronouncement on Syria was perceived as an open invitation to aggression against the US and its allies. The handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack was toxic. The Obama Administration’s (Susan Rice) response was to blame an Egyptian American for a video as having caused the attack – the Administration knew well it was a terrorist attack from the beginning. The message to the world was, “You can kill and American Ambassador and we will lie to protect you.” The lack of response to the People’s Republic of China stealing the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 also invited aggression. This is in part why the US-Philippines alliance is now off-kilter. Voters also saw Obama’s failure to respond to China’s creation of 3000 acres of land in the South China Sea, and its other acts of coercive expansionism. There were also North Korean nuclear tests, a failure to pass the TPP and a questionable nuclear deal with Iran.

The Obama Administration allowed the US military strength to deteriorate badly. The Navy has shrunk to its smallest size since WWI, the Army is the smallest it has been since WWII, and the Air Force is the smallest and oldest in its history.

Trump voters acted on their beliefs, and they believed that by voting for Donald Trump they would have stronger national defense, they would have real economic growth, job creating, a return of personal freedoms, and for law and order. The American government owes its first loyalty to the American people. It is not a radical idea to expect that the government should put “America first.”

What should Southeast Asia expect for a Trump presidency? Expect the unexpected. That is his style. But also, expect that there will be great continuity in the US engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. Also expect that now he is President, he will do what every other President has done – he will listen to his advisors and moderate his viewpoints. The strongest reason that the United States is in Southeast Asia is economic – Trump is a businessman and knows that this region is a crucial engine for global growth. Expect also a stronger US military and greater interaction with friends and allies in the region.

In November, Trump’s campaign specifically highlighted the relationship with Thailand in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. There are key people on the national security team focused on the relationship with Thailand.

Regarding the People’s Republic of China, we can expect deterrence or containment – it will not be appeasement or accommodation as it has been. Cooperation between the US and China is critical to solving international challenges, and that will continue on many levels. However, there has been uneven payback. The US will counter China’s illegitimate claims across Asia, from Indonesia to India. Confront it regarding economic and trade abuses. And more formally address its abhorrent human rights record.

Key Trump officials are looking at participation in a number of ASEAN-led forums, including the East Asia Summit and the US-ASEAN Summit. and how to get the President or Vice-President to attend. There is a clear among many in the Administration about the importance of ASEAN and Southeast Asia. The US will firm relationships with its allies, including Thailand and the Philippines, as well as continuing partnerships with the other eight countries. Regarding Myanmar specifically, the Trump party platform indicates more encouragement towards democracy and respect for the rights of the country’s minority population. With Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the Administration will focus on many issues, including economic and counter-terrorism issues.

As we begin the Trump era, it will be a bumpy ride. Cultural wars and division have happened before. Avoid the hysteria, seek out a variety of sources. There were protests and riots on the streets after the election, but they only made up a minority of people discontent with the outcome; the 62 million people who voted for Trump hope that their real concerns will finally be met.

Phil Robertson

We are definitely in for a bumpy ride. There are a lot of talking points there essentially straight out of the Trump campaign on foreign and domestic policy issues. One gets the impression that Donald Trump ran against Barack Obama. If that had been the contest, we would likely be celebrating President Obama’s third term. That was not the contest. Clearly, Hilary Rodham Clinton had a lot of flaws, which can be seen in the pushback against her specifically. 

It is important to recognize that the margin of difference in the electoral college came down to 100,000 votes in three states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In those areas, Donald Trump’s argument was that he was going to bring American manufacturing jobs back to those communities. That is not going to happen. Globalization is too far down the road for this to occur. There are expectations that there will be economic promise delivered, and that is going to be the issue that these Trump voters (who voted very clearly for Obama in 2008 and 2012) will judge Donald J. Trump by in 2020.

Missing from the conversation is conflicts of interest, especially with regards to Russia.

We welcome some efforts from Trump in Southeast Asia, especially promoting religious freedom in Vietnam and continuation of a concern about the plight of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. The issue is that this will not be a significant priority for the Trump Administration. The reality is that they will be focused internally that do not necessarily have the support of the American people.

Secretary of Defense going to South Korea and Japan is a responsible action. But the feeling in Washington is that strong figures like Mattis will have to ‘trim the sails’ of the President to keep his feet in a reality based universe.

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

If Southeast Asia is not on the Trump agenda, it is both good and bad. You can expect poor policy, like in the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration was far better at articulating the issues, and facilitated a greatly improved relationship with Vietnam and Myanmar. With Trump, there is a great deal of unpredictability, which fits the profile of Southeast Asia.

For the Thais, it is a golden opportunity. This will be the 36th anniversary of Cobra Gold. Under Obama, Admiral Harris was unable to attend due to the fact that Thailand does not have a democratically elected government. This is no longer at the top of American concerns. Thailand has followed the roadmap towards democracy (although it is still a little bit bumpy). On the security side, Thailand is very happy as it will continue to work with the US. The value of ally partners, which has been neglected for a long time, will be reviewed and reset. There will be a session between Admiral Harris and Minster of Defense Prawit to discuss the future of the Thai-US alliance.

During the election, Trump called into question the relevance of the alliance system, but has since flip-flopped on that position for good reason. He will take alliance partnerships seriously. The US should pay more attention to Thailand, and appreciate what it has done, by not focusing on one narrow stream like democratization.

Thailand can cooperate with the United States on its counter-extremist campaign. Thailand and the United States share experiences on dealing with terrorism. This will feature in future Thai-US relations even more than under the previous government, especially on building up an intelligence network.

Another important issue is related to immigration and refugees. Myanmar is likely to start talking about this issue through the aegis of ASEAN, as there is growing internal and international pressure to try to find a solution.

America talks a lot about 11 million Mexicans. Thailand has nearly 10 million illegal immigrants from all over the world – 33 countries that use Thailand as a platform to seek temporary refugee status. Thai-US can find some commonality on this issue.

On the economic and trade front, it is likely that the Americans will return with an updated Trans-Pacific Partnership in the next 2 years. The TPP was an American led, high-level, premium free trade agreement. If America abandons it, the whole credibility of the US in the region will disappear. The RCEP will be concluded soon with a big push from China, Japan and Korea. India is moving forward after years of lagging the process. A lot of people say that RCEP is Chinese-driven, but it is not really. The whole idea has come from ASEAN (which is why it is so low-denominator, but there is a new effort to make it more comprehensive).

Thai-US relations cannot get worse. They will improve. FTA negotiations between US and Thailand will be back on the books. If Trump does not come to the East Asia Summit in November, this will downgrade US-ASEAN relations. In 19 East Asia Summit, the Chinese have never missed one of them. This kind of personal rapport and connections are extremely important. No American leader has established a personal rapport as well as President Obama.

Dr. Supavud Saicheua

The market has already made conclusions about the Presidency of Donald Trump. The stock market is hitting record highs and the US dollar has strengthened based on the thinking that Trump’s policies are on the right track. This is the market trying to ‘hope for the best.’ It is far too early, though, to come up with some definitive conclusions. Only 20% of the Cabinet positions have been appointed, and there are still thousands of officials who have not yet started their jobs.

“America First” is not a problem. But in the inauguration speech, Donald Trump said that “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” That is zero-sum, not positive sum, speaking. That is a huge contrast to the US after WWII, when it designed an open and inclusive international architecture, with the World Bank, IMF and Marshall Plan. These were meant to be multilateral and inclusive. Trump is focused on bilateral deal-making.

Based on his campaigning and Tweeting, he implies that rich ‘Uncle Sam’ is gullible and too kind, therefore, the US has been losing jobs and has started to run a huge deficit. The US political leadership has for a long time been cozying up with multinational companies, making policies that benefit themselves rather than the majority of Americans.

What would then be Trump’s tactics to deal with these problems? First, bilateral, not multilateral, negotiations. President Trump is betting big that he can harness US strategic and economic heft to press other countries into one-on-one trade deals. He is also calling in manufacturing, automobile and pharmaceutical industries, promising them deregulation and tax cuts in return for bringing profits and jobs back to America. He has also spoken about wanting a weaker US dollar.

To pay for these plans, US House Speaker has called for a ‘border adjustment tax.’ In effect, this tax would be a 20% tariff on all imports which is likely to be WTO illegal and bring about a trade war. Some American intellectuals argue that the border adjustment tax will not be a tax on the Americans at all, because the US dollar will appreciate by 25% to offset the tax. The US would also gain a significant tax revenue which would pay off some of its debt (and would offset the corporate tax cut). This would be achieved by utilizing the ‘optimal tariff argument,’ meaning the US would impose a tariff which would cause the US dollar to appreciate – the US will actually benefit by running the same current account deficit, but with a stronger dollar and with tax revenue. The argument can theoretically be made.

But really, what causes the US large current account and trade deficit? It has been running for more than forty years. It has always spent more than it earns. It has been able to do that ever since President Nixon took the US off the gold standard in 1971, where the US would no longer honor its commitment to have the dollar be convertible to gold. Since then, the US has run increasingly large deficits. What the US has done is print dollars for everyone else to hold as foreign reserves. We have all been exchanging our goods for US paper, be it US dollars or treasuries. That is how it finances its deficit. That is why the US needs to say it wants a strong dollar, because as soon as it says it wants a weak dollar means the rest of the world’s central banks will dump the dollar. It seems that President Trump thinks that this occurs because the rest of the world is exploiting the US – actually, it looks like it is the other way around.

The US dollar actually fell about 25% between 2002 and 2011, during which time the US lost 2.1 million manufacturing jobs. Thus, a weak US dollar does not work to bring back manufacturing jobs. During this same period, there were 7 million other jobs in new sectors that were created.

Question and Answer

Public Question: Do you think this is a good opportunity for the current Thai government to improve relations with the US since President Trump seems to value human rights and democracy less than Hilary Clinton?

Public Question: Recently, Mr. Steve Bannon said that the US would not allow China to roam freely in the South China Sea. How would you see the legitimacy of the US in the South China Sea and its possible impacts on regional security?

Public Question: You talked about more interaction is expected in this part of the world. In terms of human rights, what is your stance and expectation on human rights?

Public Question: What kind of move will the Trump administration towards North Korea?

Kavi: I have to remind you that the human rights issue remains central to the US-Thai relations. Thailand has a lot of problems related to human rights and has been tackling them head on in recent years. Thailand will not want to lower the standards of human rights (because Thai people want human rights!), but I don’t think the Trump Administration will pick on Thailand – that is important. If you talk to the Thais nicely (that is what Australia and New Zealand have done) it gives a good impression.

Phil: Unfortunately, I think we will not see as much attention given to civil and political rights here in Thailand that we saw from the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration will likely focus on more on trade and military cooperation.

Thailand is doing some interesting things on human rights, especially human trafficking. Thailand has a gender equality act that is leading in the region in terms of LGBT rights. But I don’t see an overarching interest within the US government under Trump to push it further.

For quiet diplomacy to work, it also needs to be backed up by public diplomacy.

Finally, if you want to see a clear picture of the human rights situation here in Thailand, I would encourage you to go to the Bangkok Arts Centre which is funded by the government of Canada called, “Those Who Died Trying,” which is a photographic exhibition of 50 human rights defenders who have been killed since 1992.

Kerry: One of the reasons there were a number of people criticizing the Obama Administration after May 22nd 2014 was the overzealous response to the coup. The point of the criticism was that it was immature and unprofessional in the way we dealt with our long-term ally, and that you also want to be careful not to go into the arms into totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. We must make sure that we keep Thailand in a position where it allies with a regime like China, which gives justification for further rights abuses.

South China Sea is a global common. It is international waters. The PRC will likely announce an ADIZ in the South China Sea, which will be a major test for Trump. We have to stand up and ensure there is stronger pushback against China’s claims.