Will Trump’s Asia tour fix America’s Southeast Asia problem?

Will Trump’s Asia tour fix America’s Southeast Asia problem?

US President Donald Trump’s failure to present a clear, long-term policy strategy in the Pacific has called into question the US commitment to Southeast Asia. Trump’s unpredictable approach has only exacerbated the sense of uncertainty. Trump’s Asia tour is a chance to present a more concrete US strategy, to reassure allies, and to shape the region’s geopolitics in America’s favor.  

Uncertainty of US commitment in Southeast Asia

Since President Trump came into office, the United States’ continued commitment to Southeast Asia has been a growing concern. Trump has signaled an indifference to the region by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and abandoning the rebalancing strategy of the Obama administration. Regional allies have questioned whether they can continue to rely on the United States for security assurances and economic leadership in Pacific. As uncertainty builds, Trump’s potential presence at three summits – Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, ASEAN, and East Asia – could serve as a litmus test of US engagement in this region.

The White House announced on 24 October that Trump would skip the annual East Asia Summit to shave a day off his upcoming trip – only to seemingly backtrack days later. For Asian partners, actively engaging in regional meetings such as these is a critically important signal of US commitment. Trump’s equivocation over this summit may further reduce public confidence in American’s role as a regional economic and security leader. Weaker regional ties and influence will no doubt obstruct US policy on key issues, including engagement with North Korea, tension in the South China Sea, and the growing Rohingya crisis. Trump’s planned absence would contribute to an increasingly popular narrative that the US is in yielding influence in the region to China.

Hedging China’s Influence?

China is aggressively courting Southeast Asia with infrastructure projects, development assistance, and technology. Southeast Asian countries are reevaluating their future accordingly, becoming more receptive to Chinese finance, integrating into Chinese supply chains, and moving deeper within China’s strategic orbit.  

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative already promises an unprecedented level of connectivity with nations in a region with a significant population and poor infrastructure development. Last year, $30 billion in Chinese investment and construction contracts flowed into ASEAN member states, where demand for infrastructure is booming in rapidly developing economies like Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. All 10 ASEAN states are also members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led multilateral financial institution that issued $1.7 billion in loans in 2016.

Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent have also aggressively expanded their business in growing industries, like transportation, e-commerce, and digital cash transfer service. Indonesia’s ride-hailing app Go-Jek is challenging Uber for control of the local market after receiving $1.2 billion in funding from Tencent.

Alibaba invested over $2 billion to acquire regional e-commerce giant Lazada, ahead of Amazon’s entry into the region. Chinese companies have recognized and seized opportunities in mobile banking and e-wallets in Southeast Asian markets.

Ensuring a US role in the future  

Secretary of Defense Mattis attempted to reassure ASEAN partners at the Shangri-la Summit of US commitment to the regional security architecture, and promised policy continuity with the Obama administration. Despite this, ASEAN countries, including Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand have moved to boost their defense ties with China. Earlier in 2017, the Thai junta government approved a 36 billion baht deal to purchase Chinese-made submarines for the Thai Navy. The cabinet approved a proposal by the Thai army to buy 34 armored personnel carriers from China. In June, the first round of 7.3million USD in Chinese military assistance was delivered to the Philippines to provide much-needed support to security forces struggling in Marawi.

The Trump administration has been indifferent to constructive engagement with the region, repudiating beneficial trade and investment initiatives and reducing its footprint. In the vacuum left by America’s absence, the strategic calculus of leaders in the region might be changing. If long-time American allies in Southeast Asia band together with China, this will significantly alter the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and reduce America’s strategic options. If the US wishes to continue to carry its historical level of influence, it cannot afford to further isolate itself from its regional partners.

About Author

Qi Lin

Qi is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst. She specializes in East Asian security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Chinese native speaker and proficient in English. She holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of North Carolina and a Master’s in International Affairs from the George Washington University.