Nearly two years have passed for President Donald Trump’s administration, yet this hawkish but groundbreaking administration has gained global traction by many of its confounding foreign policy behaviors. Guided by the doctrine of “America First”, which entails the placating of American national interests above other matters, the Trump Administration has baffled many experts and policymakers through pursuing a variety of hawkish policies that many constitute as a reneging on multilateralism, a retreat from international obligations, and a radical expression of ideological hubris.
Among these policies is the curtailing of international commitments to international institutions, as reflected in the recent demand for NATO members to hike their defense spending at the 2018 NATO Summit. Surprisingly in Southeast Asia, however, a regional institution that has not been the subject of critical lambastes from Trump like that of NATO is ASEAN.
Different from Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, the Trump Administration’s approach with ASEAN is characterized by diplomatic inconsistencies and nuances thus far. At the 3rdASEAN-U.S. Summit convened on November 21st, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the U.S., under the Obama Administration, became the first external major power to amplify the ASEAN-U.S. dialogue relations to a “Strategic Partnership”.
This momentous occasion significantly cemented ASEAN-U.S. ties, and it also reassured allies in ASEAN of America’s plausible commitment to “Proactive Engagement” with the regional institution. Later came the convening of the “2016 Special U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit” held in California, culminating in the inception of a myriad of regional initiatives focusing on bolstering ASEAN-U.S. engagements on the social, economic, and political fronts in Southeast Asia.
However, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017 left many Southeast Asian leaders, especially Vietnam and Malaysia, confused and doubtful of the U.S.’s prior promises. Yet, in November 2017, the President’s visit to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vietnam, coupled with a convivial participation in the 5th U.S.-ASEAN Summit in the Philippines, somewhat reinforced the U.S.’s continuing prioritization of ASEAN as an imperative institution in its broader foreign policy calculations in Asia.
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At the present, it is an intricate task to predict the future of President Trump’s diplomacy with ASEAN, but there are certain looming opportunities ASEAN should consider maximizing to reconstitute its relevance in Southeast Asia’s strategic environment while also maintaining a stable and productive relationship with the U.S.
The first opportunity lies in the conundrum surrounding the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Since the U.S’s unilateral departure from this mega-regional trading arrangement on January 23, 2017, its negotiation process has been experiencing a stalemate ever since. In fact, the withdrawal aptly besieged the original objective of the initiative, which was to design a 12-member “21st-century trade agreement” centered on augmenting economic cooperation between Asia and Latin America. Hence, the notion that the U.S. was a harbinger of economic multilateralism in Asia became obsolete.
At the time of this writing, Japan, which is also a member of the TPP, is the only Asian economic powerhouse currently undertaking substantial efforts to continue the negotiation process. Rebranding this initiative as TPP 11, with the U.S. now categorized as an external partner, Japan has taken great strides in persuading member countries to ratify the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) by 2019 – a document stipulating new provisions for the TPP – following the conclusion of negotiations in March 2018. As a firm upholder of “open regionalism”, ASEAN, too, could play a leadership role in reviving this agreement alongside Japan.
In November 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the bedrock of economic integration in ASEAN, came into fruitful existence. Based on the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, the ASEAN members agreed to commit to fostering not only intra-regional integration in Southeast Asia, but also inter-regional integration with mega-regions across the world through this community. Given its broader outreach to regional and global markets, the TPP, with more Southeast Asian states entering, could also connect ASEAN to regional economies across the globe, specifically Latin America, which is also said to become a mega-region in the future.
Hence, ASEAN should consider occupying a more active leadership role in reinstating the TPP in hopes of reinforcing its commitment to open regionalism in Asia. Some possible options are the following.
Enhancing Collaboration With Other Countries
Firstly, ASEAN could persuade its members Vietnam and Malaysia to collaborate with Japan in chartering the new contours of this mega-regional trading arrangement. With its reputable economic standing in Asia, ASEAN, alongside Japan and other countries, could work closely to design better trade provisions that best correspond to the prevailing structural conditions and realities of the regional trading regime in East Asia. This would allow ASEAN to maintain the momentum in the TPP and economic cooperation in the regional economic environment.
However, one possible obstruction to this process is the objections from Latin American member countries like Chile, Peru, and Mexico, over the accusation that the TPP is transforming into an “Asia-Pacific” rather than a “Trans-Pacific” partnership. However, on May 3, 2017, on the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly meeting, ASEAN leaders inked the “ASEAN-Pacific Alliance Framework for Cooperation”, an initiative designed to solidify productive relations between ASEAN and the Pacific Alliance trade bloc (Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia) in the fields of economic, education, technology, sports and culture, people-to-people connectivity, and other critical areas.
In light of this, the TPP could be employed as an additional instrument to this framework. Owing to their complementary goals in strengthening regional economic integration and boosting regional economic growth, they could be incorporated together to herald the development of a larger regional economic bloc encompassing countries from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, with ASEAN, given its combined economic prowess and institutional centrality in Asia, acting as a central institution monitoring over its progress in the bloc-to-bloc ties.
Should ASEAN achieve such feat in the forthcoming interlude, the East Asian and Pacific liberal economic order will remain rigid, firm, and steadfast against the emerging waves of economic protectionism, nationalism, and populism. ASEAN will also reposition itself as a comprehensive and powerful regional institution capable of preserving multilateralism and open regionalism in the Asian century. Such achievement will also encourage other powerful economic players in the global economic arena to strengthen their economic relations with ASEAN on the basis of reciprocity and mutual gains.
A free and open Indo-Pacific region
The second opportunity for ASEAN lies in the U.S.’s shift of regional strategic focus from the “Asia-Pacific” region to the “Indo-Pacific” region in its strategic radar in Asia. In November 2017, the Trump Administration issued the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), a document outlining tenets of the U.S.’s new strategic directions in the Asia-Pacific theatre, underpinned by the doctrine of “Principled Realism”. Building on the promises to promote a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region (FOIP) at the 2017 APEC Summit, the document stipulated that the U.S. security posture in Asia will concentrate on extending strategic influences to the Indo-Pacific region as an instrument to enhance its strategic foothold in the region while also counterbalancing against China’s encroaching influences.
Despite its surrounding ambiguities, this policy shift presents a boon for ASEAN in many respects. Firstly, as the Indo-Pacific region is now at the forefront of the U.S. strategic vision in Asia, ASEAN has higher institutional flexibility and maneuverability in brokering a resolution to minimize conflicts and tensions in the South China Sea. For years, long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been eminently complicated and, at times, exacerbated by the ongoing strategic contestations between the U.S. and China over hegemonic control of this strategic maritime space.
The shift in the U.S. strategic direction signifies the possibility of reduced interferences, which would lessen the intensity of the U.S.-China competition in the area. In May 2018, the U.S. rebranded its United States Pacific Area of Command (USPACOM) to United States Indo-Pacific Area of Command (USINDOPACOM) – a move implying the projection of more force posture in the Indian and Pacific oceans to counterbalance China there instead of the South China Sea.
Of course, China will remain assertive on its territorial claims, but the transfer of the balance-of-power politics to the Indo-Pacific will also gauge China broaden their hegemonic agendas, thereby providing ASEAN more avenues to deal with their own members’ affairs. Such feat, however, hinges on the institutional and diplomatic unity of ASEAN as well as its perpetual willingness in ensuring stability and prosperity in the regional security environment through its institutional initiatives.
Read also: The Biggest Challenges for ASEAN in 2018
Apart from this, ASEAN could also explore opportunities to enhance its strategic and diplomatic engagement with India or South Asian regional institutions, specifically the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) under the banner of an “ASEAN Indo-Pacific Strategy”. Such course of action will allow ASEAN to extend its influences beyond Southeast Asian boundaries while also acting in concert with India in its “Act East Policy” to improvise and manage the regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific region.
In this pursuit, however, ASEAN should be cautious to not succumb itself to another U.S.-China competition or other geopolitical rivalries bound to manifest in the region. Its institutional centrality should always be exercised as a tool for igniting the spirit of cooperation and also as a bulwark against repercussive geopolitical currents and dynamics in the region.
Moreover, as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi stressed at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers retreat in February 2018, ASEAN could only maintain its centrality in the Indo-Pacific region unless clear rules of engagement and guidelines for the development of an Indo-Pacific regional architecture are crafted and articulated. Currently, ASEAN diplomats are working closely with Washington officials to conclude this task. Hence, observers should be watchful of the rudimentary tenets of ASEAN’s strategic approach to the region.
The US-China trade war
The last opportunity lies in the U.S.-China economic competition. Though the U.S-China rivalry in the Southeast Asian security theatre may produce negative ramifications for ASEAN, their rivalries in other domains could offer advantages otherwise. Consider the economic domain, where the U.S. and China are now exchanging punitive measures in the tit-for-tat trade war. With tariffs now imposed on various industries in both of their domestic markets, they are becoming less favorable destinations for foreign direct investments. However, a number of Southeast Asian states, such as Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, are at risks of adverse economic consequences due to their partial dependence on Chinese and American economies.
Yet, should ASEAN commit itself to transform the Southeast Asian market in an attractive destination, it could position the region as a new economic center in Asia conducive for free and open economic transactions. ASEAN has many options to perform this.
Firstly, ASEAN member countries could continue to boost their performances in the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) to secure the free flow of goods and services while also fastening the pace of regional economic integration. Greater economic connectivity will attract Chinese and American exports to ASEAN as an alternative to their own domestic markets that are being harmed by protectionist tariffs. Pivot ASEAN businesses and consumers will stand to gain heavily from this should they know how to capitalize properly.
Secondly, ASEAN should diversify its economic relations with other dialogue partners to secure more markets and to reduce dependence on the American and Chinese economies. Thus far, ASEAN has emphatically diversified its dialogue relations with partners like Japan, Australia, Korea, and more. ASEAN should maintain momentum in this course of action to solidify its integration into the global economy as a contingency plan for future U.S.-China economic warfare.
Read also: What can ASEAN offer China?
Finally, ASEAN could hastily conclude the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to safeguard multilateralism and to also reinforce regional economic cooperation in Southeast Asia. On July 12, 2018, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Huang Xilian expressed that China is interested in concluding the trade deal in the wake of growing protectionism in the global trade regime. China is one of ASEAN’s most dynamic trade and investment partners, and, with the trade spat from the U.S., China will be compelled to maintain economic engagement with ASEAN through the RCEP to keep its economy intact.
At this critical juncture, the present behavior of the U.S. has indeed sent mixed signals and defied the expectations of several experts and policymakers seeing the U.S. as a responsible global power. Labeling this as an all-detrimental revelation, however, is a blatant mischaracterization.
Despite Trump’s unpredictable course of actions, ASEAN should understand that it has great flexibility to navigate this new world order teeming with global uncertainties. If ASEAN is observant of the surging global trends, it could enhance its institutional prowess in multiple specters. Hence, ASEAN should remain resilient and united as a regional community to defend itself against these cresting issues. Simultaneously, ASEAN should also ready itself with the proliferation of other global forces like the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the denuclearization process in the North Korean peninsula, which could also present more opportunities to the regional institution.
Mr. Sithy Rath Daravuth is a Cambodian lecturer at the Department of International Studies of the Institute of Foreign Languages in the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). He received his Bachelor of Arts in International Studies (with Honors) from RUPP in 2016. He is also an active alumnus of a number of recognized networks, including the Fulbright and Undergraduate State Alumni Association of Cambodia (FUSAAC), the Fund for American Studies (TFAS), and the Center for Global Politics (CGP). He can be contacted via facebook.com/daravuthrath
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.