Donald Trump’s presidential victory signals an end to America’s engagement in Southeast Asia
Trump’s unexpected victory could change how America interacts with Southeast Asia on issues concerning security, human rights and trade.
Republican Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to the White House has not only shocked the world but is also on course to reset the US’s engagement with some countries. As the world uneasily awaits the president-elect’s foreign policy, it is time to take a look at some of the potential implications of Trump’s presidency for Southeast Asia – a strategic focus of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia policy.
What to expect from America’s engagement in Southeast Asia under the new administration
The US has traditionally provided security guarantees to the region, either through partnership or alliances. This was an important strategic focus for Obama’s Asian rebalancing policy, and under his administration, new military agreements were signed, such as the US-Philippines Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. Vietnam also became a new security partner.
The US has acted as the champion for liberal values, pressing authoritarian regimes to respect human rights, rule of law, and sometimes pushing for political reforms in the region, through means of sanctions and aid as seen with Thailand and in Myanmar.
Beyond projecting security and spreading values in Southeast Asia, the US has strong economic ties with the region. The regional bloc ASEAN is the US’s fourth largest trading partner and the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN.
Trump’s foreign policy stance is heading towards isolationism
The US president has great freedom to manoeuvre his foreign policy and make related decisions at his discretion. The president will pick his Asia team during his first 100 days in office, and judging from his remarks since his victory, his foreign policy is likely to differ significantly from Obama’s administration.
Trump will have less engagement with the region and enforce stricter trade protectionism. In other words, he will have an isolationist approach.
Southeast Asia embraces a greater security role
Trump has been talking about greater burden sharing, and countries in Southeast Asia could take on more security responsibility at both national and regional levels. One consequence might be an increase of national military spending, resulting in fewer resources for important infrastructure investment.
In addition, Southeast Asian countries are militarily weak: Even with an increase in national spending, the loss of security guaranteed by the US means they will be unable to challenge the rise of China’s hegemony and will be less inclined to engage in conflict with this country – despite how uncomfortable this might be.
With China and Xi Jinping gaining strength both domestically and internationally – several high profiles state visits of Southeast Asian leaders to Beijing in recent months confirms this – a Trump presidency could lead to a reduction of America’s influence in the region.
If China fills the power vacuum left by the US, it is unlikely to be a stabilising force given that several countries in the region have territorial disputes with China.
A US retreat paves the way for authoritarian leaders and human rights abuse
The withdrawal of the US from the region will most likely make way for authoritarian regimes that continue to abuse human rights and prosecute oppositions and dissents. Human rights activists are particularly worried that the outcome of Trump’s victory will make the path to authoritarian rule easier for Southeast Asian leaders. The region is witnessing a reversal of the democratisation process: Thailand is ruled by a military regime after a coup that ousted a democratically elected president in 2014; a scandal that hit Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has resulted in tightened control on social media. The level of social tension is rising in various Southeast Asian countries.
It is no surprise to see Southeast Asian authoritarian leaders welcoming Trump’s victory, believing his triumph is a sign of less US intervention in the region and, more importantly, their human rights record. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted saying Trump won the presidential election by appealing to voters who wanted the US to be less involved with foreign affairs and paying more attention to the country’s domestic issues.
TPP is dead: expect trade barriers and tighter immigration control
At the heart of the Republican campaign lay the promise of ‘making America great again’ – a promise entailing trade tariffs and stricter control on immigration. The president-elect has heavily criticised the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has also vowed to bring jobs back to the American soil.
Obama fought hard for the trade deal TPP, which aimed to of cut tariffs and make goods easier to sell in 12 signatory countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – but the TPP is effectively dead under Trump’s rule.
The target of the trade tariffs and the level of the tariffs are unknown, but Vietnam, China and India have all been criticised for ripping off America. Tariffs on Vietnam will affect its exports to the US, its biggest export market for agricultural products, seafood, garments and footwear. Trade barriers on China will be likely to trigger retaliation from Beijing and potentially lead to trade war. Southeast Asian countries in general will take a significant hit from the disruption of trans-pacific trade.
Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration policy is further cause for concern for some countries. Over 35 percent of the Philippine people working abroad are based in the US, and remittances sent back to the island nation forms an important part of income for its poorer citizens. This is one example among many, and stricter immigration control will see other low skilled workers being forced out of the country.
The level of disruption to Southeast Asia depends on various factors
It makes sense for the US to stay engaged in the region if it wants to maintain its leading political influence there. However, given Trump’s rhetoric regarding the cost of international security protection and his preference for trade protectionism, we cannot be certain that the incoming president will follow or retain some of Obama’s Asia rebalancing strategy.
Of course, it is be possible that none of the stated scenarios will happen. The outcome of Trump’s foreign policy depends upon who constitutes his Asia team. The president might leave his foreign policy to foreign experts or be open to suggestions from his advisors, and there may be continuity from Obama’s administration.
Trump will unveil his foreign policy imminently, and investors will have to gauge where the rhetoric ends and where substantive claims about future policy begins.