This is the second piece in a two-part special series on US President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia. You can read more on the first piece on “Trump in Asia: Making America Great in Asia?” here.
US President Donald Trump’s marathon visit to Asia has come to an end. Ending last Tuesday in Manila, he had two main goals he had set out to accomplish—trade and security.
The crucial question to ask following the wrap-up of the trip is: did he achieve what he had set out to do?
Bringing Asia together against the North Korean nuclear threat
Focusing on security, it was clear that he came to build a coalition against North Korea.
In Malaysian Prime Minister Mr Najib Razak’s trip to the White House in September, President Trump had credited him for cutting off business ties between Malaysia and North Korea. In October, President Trump also sought cooperation on the North Korean conflict from Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore who will hold ASEAN’s annually-rotating chairmanship next year.
Also read: Is ASEAN the Key to the Korean Gridlock?
Mr Trump has continued to build on that, with another friend on board in the form of current ASEAN Chair President Rodrigo Duterte, who said that North Korea’s missile tests were a concern for every ASEAN leader. This highlights the influential role that ASEAN, and broadly Asia, can and will play on the conflict to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
However, President Trump has risked further escalating the situation during his Asian trip. Although he had initially urged North Korea to “come to the table and make a deal” during his visit to Seoul, he later tweeted in retaliation against Kim Jong-un calling him “old” by calling the dictator “short” and “fat.” The North Korean state media then criticised Mr Trump, stating that he deserved the death penalty for insulting their leader.
For now, all options remain on the table according to Mr Trump, but it is not unforeseeable that rising tensions between the two countries could soon result in military action. This would jeopardise peace and stability in the region, which was the key theme throughout the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila – which President Trump almost did not attend.
Trump: you do you, I’ll do me
Despite it being a key avenue for the US to engage with ASEAN, President Trump had initially planned to not attend the ASEAN Summit and send Vice President Mike Pence as his replacement. However, Vice President Pence later stated in April during a visit to the ASEAN headquarters that Mr Trump would be attending the meeting. President Trump later invoked non-committal words such as “we’ll see” when responding to the issue before later confirming his attendance.
At the ASEAN Summit, President Trump urged the region’s leaders “to be strong, independent and prosperous, in control of their own destinies and satellites to no one.”
This is a significant departure from past administrations’ foreign policy approach. It intimates that he will abide by his “America First” agenda and not meddle in a foreign nation’s domestic affairs.
Also read: Obama’s Legacy in Asia
Some countries in ASEAN should breathe easy hearing such a change in tone, as previous American presidents often harped on the region’s track record on human rights and democracy.
However, this also puts in doubt President Trump and the US’ commitments to the region. This is further exacerbated by his early departure from the East Asia Summit, which includes ASEAN as well, where he left after lunch with state leaders because meetings were running about two hours late.
Critics had already been doubtful whether President Trump would have the patience to engage with ASEAN’s notoriously tedious protocols. This, along with his prior non-committal stance towards attending the ASEAN Summit, will only fuel speculations of his ability to commit to the region, where the people are already turning to China as their beacon of hope.
The biggest winner: China
China was the dominant player throughout the Summits that took place. Prior to the Summits, President Xi Jinping had proudly declared in his Communist Party congress speech that China “now stands tall and firm in the East.” Now, they have seized upon major geopolitical influence across the South China Sea, against the backdrop of declining American leadership in the region.
President Trump tried instead to bring India on board to provide balance, by labelling Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific. As the region’s third-largest economy, India could provide the buffer needed by Southeast Asia.
India is already seeking to push back against China’s movements in the Indian Ocean — the latter evidenced by Chinese financing of port projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. However, there are still question marks about India’s ability to lead in the region.
Crucially, such moves conjure up an image of the US leaving ASEAN behind.
Also read: The Biggest Challenges for ASEAN in 2018
This leaves ASEAN countries vulnerable against an assertive China, whose ambitions could threaten the interest of countries within ASEAN. It is especially so for countries like Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, all of whom share a border with the giant. China is also likely to gain an even bigger advantage on the South China Sea dispute, which was not a priority to Trump given an absence of focus on it during his trip.
Back in the US, President Trump has already claimed victory, stating that “America is back.” True enough, the US is not completely out of the picture in Asia. But he is ignorant of the fact that despite all the lavish praises he received from leaders throughout his trip, they are not ushering in a resurgent America, but instead a fleeing America. With diminishing US leadership, President Xi is now the new poster boy as China fills the void that the US has left behind in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
Ryan Chua is the Chief Operating Officer of the ASEAN Economic Forum.
You can read the first part (Trump in Asia: Making America Great in Asia?) of this special series on President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia by clicking here.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.