Trump, Southeast Asia and Thailand

Trump, Southeast Asia and Thailand

The new US administration's views and actions on China are of intense interest and possible leverage in dealings with Beijing by Thailand and all of Asean. (File photo)
The new US administration's views and actions on China are of intense interest and possible leverage in dealings with Beijing by Thailand and all of Asean. (File photo)

No newly inaugurated president of the United States in the contemporary era is more controversial nor as derided as Donald Trump. Already, there have been pre-inauguration insinuations and plots among his critics and detractors to see him eventually impeached or at least occupy the White House for only one term. Without much experience in public service, the real-estate tycoon catapulted himself into American political life, and his country's electoral system produced him as the winner in the election last November, even though he lost the popular vote to his opponent by more than 2.8 million votes out of 128.8 million.

Notwithstanding the derogatory comments against him, fuelled by visceral social media, Mr Trump is now the US president. We should all take him very seriously, for better or for worse. The American people who oppose him are eroding the fabric of their democratic rule and undermining their country's role as the beacon of freedom and democracy in the wider world. If they cannot accept and respect their own democratic outcomes, Americans will have a harder time expecting democratic rule from others.

Mr Trump's opponents can despise and deplore him all they want but they should respect their own political system and institutions that have delivered a president every four years for more than two centuries. They should certainly scrutinise Mr Trump for his performance, potential conflicts of interest and abuse of power, but the anti-Trump columns should also work to win the next election. They can even work on a bipartisan basis with the Democratic Party and established Republican Party stalwarts to ensure that Mr Trump does not have support for a second term. A silver lining for the US is that the Trump era could be a wake-up call and realign both major parties to converge on a new consensus about what is and is not acceptable in American political life. Otherwise we will see intractable and irreparable polarisation among Americans that will impede the US's role in international affairs to the detriment of all concerned.

For Southeast Asia, the Trump administration spells bad news but this has been expected since President Barack Obama's lofty "pivot" and "rebalance" strategy towards Asia. If Mr Trump's tough-talking rhetoric about taking China to task for currency manipulation and unfair trade practices, even reviewing the "one-China" policy -- proves shallow and ineffectual like the Obama pivot, then China will capitalise on the US's lack of wherewithal. But if Mr Trump follows through with his hard-line posture, with an increased US naval presence and manoeuvres beyond the Obama administration's freedom-of-navigation operational patrols (FONOPs), then we will see more intensifying confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

As the regional vehicle to manage the common interests of Southeast Asian states, Asean has been divided on China. And China knows it, as it has undermined Asean's centrality and cohesion at will. When the Obama pivot was launched, China tested it, first by taking over the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines and later a string of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea. The Philippines countered by taking the case to a tribunal under the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, and won an overwhelming victory in July 2016 that denied China's historical rights and derided its maritime environmental degradation.

But China ignored the landmark ruling, while the Obama administration reacted with perfunctory statements about complying with international law even when the US has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a result, the newly elected President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, changed his country's geopolitical game and openly wooed Beijing. In fact, Mr Duterte's manoeuvre was in line with Southeast Asia's overall appeasement of China. Thailand, a US treaty ally like the Philippines, sought support from Beijing after its military coup in May 2014, while Brunei, Cambodia and Laos were co-opted over the same period.

After Mr Duterte bit the bullet by kowtowing to Beijing, and received a multi-billion loan and aid package and access for fishermen to the Scarborough Shoal in return, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took his turn and came back from Beijing with a comparable sum of infrastructure and investment pledges. On its own, no Southeast Asian state can afford to stand up to Beijing. The only way to see Mr Duterte's gamble and Southeast Asia's concessions to be justifiable is if China were to reciprocate by agreeing to a credible and comprehensive Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

Here is where we have to watch Mr Trump and his Asia policy team. If they want to play hardball against China, Southeast Asia will suffer as an arena of great-power rivalry and confrontation. But while this scenario is alarming, it provides more leverage to the Asean states more than if Washington was to talk tough and turn up empty, which would essentially cede the region to China. Moreover, Mr Trump's relative embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin plays into this mix. Mr Trump may instigate a tectonic shift among the major powers if he courts Mr Putin in a realignment at China's expense. Either way, Asean should brace for more tension.

For Thailand, we should be Trump-neutral. Let's see what he does. As Thai-US relations under Mr Obama's tenure were practically at their nadir, President Trump will recalibrate and re-prioritise values and interests that affect the bilateral alliance. Human rights and democracy as the Obama values agenda will not be abandoned altogether but interests will become more front and centre. Mr Trump is a transactional deal-maker, after all, not necessarily wedded to core principles and ideals. A Trump administration may be more understanding of Thailand's profound transitional and adjustment requirements under a new reign and a new constitution.

Thailand's electoral roadmap still matters but it may be more determined from within than outside. If Mr Trump pulls out a new geopolitical playbook vis-à-vis China, Thailand's role in the regional mix will be more pivotal for US interests. Ultimately, Mr Trump's presidency will likely prove much less catastrophic and apocalyptic than many people think in view of the US's overall political system and institutions. Yet Mr Trump will be highly consequential because he represents more change than continuity in America's role in international life.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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