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Southeast Asia-US relations under Trump - Thitinan Pongsudhirak


Widely despised at home and abroad, US President Donald Trump is still in office well over a year into his controversial first term. Daily headlines from the leading media of the world have suggested from the outset that he is likely to be impeached, that his presidency is destined to be derailed due to this or that scandal. In the predominant view of the global intelligentsia more broadly, Mr Trump has been so damaging and toxic to the fabric of American democratic values and to the coherence and longevity of the rules-based liberal international order that has lasted over the past seven decades that he should not be allowed to last a full four-year term.

It is hard to be an impartial, detached analyst of US foreign policy under Mr Trump because he makes himself so unlikeable by being rambunctious and arrogant, mercurial beyond reproach, a walking divisiveness. Yet Mr Trump has been defiant and resilient. His staying power has befuddled and frustrated critics and detractors the world over. It appears he will soldier on past the midway mark of his first term, with a full term in view, and a second four-year term entirely plausible. For those outside the US and its virtual political civil war, it is imperative to find ways to deal with and be prepared for a prolonged Trump presidency.

Indeed, Mr Trump's time in office has become the new normal for international affairs. He is arguably the first "post-post-Cold War president" who causes so much disruption and discontinuity that many who are accustomed to the rules-based liberal international order are unable and unwilling to grapple with. All US presidents from Harry Truman through the Cold War years have all nurtured, promoted, and upheld the international system as we know it from the post-Second World War. And so did Presidents George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama. But not Mr Trump. He takes no preconditions, assumptions, and common groundings from the past. He neither rejects nor accepts the postwar liberal international order, dealing with it on a case-by-case basis, making his own rules along the way, thereby reflecting his basic instincts and outsider attributes.

The noise and controversy Mr Trump has generated -- from his apparent bigotry and nocturnal tweets on government policy to trade protectionism and xenophobic leanings against immigrants -- obfuscate his administration's foreign policy directions and outcomes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contours and dynamics of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

Take, for example, the 37th annual Cobra Gold military exercise among 29 nations held last February in Thailand. Contrary to perceptions about Mr Trump's lack of foreign policy experience, this military exercise signified the nuanced US geostrategic playbook. It was earlier thought in many quarters that the Trump administration, with its "America First" mantra much bandied about, would be aloof from Asian affairs in a newly isolationist fashion. But this has not been the case after its first year in office. The Trump administration is putting America's role broadly back in Southeast Asia in a counterintuitive fashion. Southeast Asia should encourage the Trump turn to the region in favour of a more balanced neighbourhood less dominated by and less beholden to a galloping China.

In Cobra Gold's latest iteration, the US raised its military personnel to 6,800, nearly double the 2015-16 figures. The lower US presence in Asia's largest military exercise in recent years largely stemmed from Thailand's May 2014 coup. Mr Obama imposed a range of sanctions against the Thai military regime, including a ban on high-level official visits and slashing Cobra Gold operations. It has taken Mr Trump a year to reboot the US contribution to Cobra Gold, which is designed to boost interoperability of the US armed forces and their counterparts among Asian allies and partners.

The Trump administration has made clear that its geostrategy privileges interests over values. Accordingly, Thailand's military government thus has more latitude in dealing with Washington. Mr Trump hosted Vietnamese, Malaysian and Thai leaders at the White House last year in the lead-up to the Asean-related summits in November. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's visit was particularly notable because he was a serving head of a military junta that has ruled Thailand since seizing power from an elected government in May 2014. Other Southeast Asian leaders seen as more authoritarian, such as President Rodrigo Duterte, have also received more attention from Mr Trump. The conspicuous exception is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's leader who enjoyed a warm rapport with Mr Obama, and who is facing a crisis of international confidence in her handling of the humanitarian crisis in the country's westernmost Rakhine state involving more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to next-door Bangladesh in desperation to survive.

Beyond supping with Southeast Asian leaders of different stripes, the Trump administration appears equipped with a broader geopolitical game plan around the "free and open Indo-Pacific" which Mr Trump has trumpeted as the main global arena of contest and cooperation. The Indo-Pacific has received mention repeatedly in major US policy statements, including Mr Trump's own speeches and the US National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy. In addition to the US, the Indo-Pacific framework is also led by Australia, Japan and India. But these four major and middle powers should be careful. If it is seen as a kind of containment and encirclement, the Indo-Pacific could end up antagonising China in the same way as the Obama administration's "pivot" and "rebalance" strategy.

In sum, as far as Southeast Asia's quest for geopolitical balance among the major powers to preserve Asean centrality is concerned, Mr Trump's foreign policy posture is giving the US more leverage and space to regain ground vis-à-vis China. The road ahead is long, tricky and daunting for Southeast Asia but if a little bit more rivalry and tension between the US and China allows Asean to maintain its central role in organising the region, it will be worth the risks.