Trump can do more for Asean allies

Trump can do more for Asean allies

President Donald Trump addresses new US citizens via taped video shown at a naturalisation ceremony for immigrants from 32 different countries, held at Newark, New Jersey. (AFP photo)
President Donald Trump addresses new US citizens via taped video shown at a naturalisation ceremony for immigrants from 32 different countries, held at Newark, New Jersey. (AFP photo)

When President Donald Trump decided to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) last November, the Asean chair, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, was elated. However, roughly 56 hours after his arrival and after his participation in a series of meetings in Manila, the chair shuddered as the No.1 guest decided to leave early without attending the grouping's most exclusive leaders-only strategic forum, the 12th EAS.

In local culture, Mr Trump's action was considered rude and undiplomatic. Since then, the sense of realism and awkwardness related to "America First" diplomacy and Mr Trump's idiosyncrasies have quickly become part of the fabric of the Asean psyche toward the US -- expect the unexpected and the unpredictable.

Mr Trump's approach to Asean in his first year decisively zeroed in on trade and North Korea. Pushing for fair trade, as he called it, the president has been quite successful in reducing the trade deficits his country has long suffered with Asean's major economies, including Thailand. Mr Trump knows exactly what buttons to push to make his friends or foes jump with joy or scream with pain. Mr Trump's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a good illustration as it shocked the socks off TPP signatories from Asean.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

To his supporters, Mr Trump has done a marvellous job of bringing back US investment, increasing domestic employment and expanding US exports to Asia. While the US economic pressure on Asean countries is enormous, they have been able to fulfil urgent demands to reduce trade deficits due to rising income and continued economic growth.

Key Asean members -- Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam -- have pledged either to invest more in America or import more, including procurement of commercial planes and arms. Future investment from these Asean members will create more than 20,000 jobs in the Rust Belt.

However, political and security matters advocated by Mr Trump's policies and approach are more problematic for the region. Deep down, he wants Asean to choose sides. Unrealistically he also wants the region to stand up, contain and manage China's rise. It is clear the Trump administration will compete with China to maintain its influence. Washington identifies both China and Russia as threats and it is on the lookout for genuine allies and friends to help out.

Indeed, the US focus on the North Korean crisis is a good case study. First, the crisis derives from the US concern about the growing capacity of Pyongyang's intercontinental missiles to reach the US mainland -- something that was a fairy tale a few years ago. Washington wants friends and allies in Asia, especially Asean, to be part of a "coalition of the willing" to further isolate North Korea, which will directly impact China's current position on the Korean Peninsula.

While the US continues to advocate freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, it has shifted its focus to mainland Asia where US security is at stake. The ongoing South China Sea dispute is now in the hands of conflicting parties to work out on their own. Asean and China are expected to complete a draft code of conduct in the South China Sea soon.

Second, North Korea's burgeoning nuclear capacity will remain high on Mr Trump's agenda in his second year. Asean has to be ready to respond as the looming threat could drive a wedge into Asean. At last week's 20-nation ministerial meeting in Vancouver, it was clear that the US and Canada wanted to further increase diplomatic pressure on North Korea which directly impacts on Asean.

Thailand, as one of 16 countries that sent troops to the 1950-53 Korean War, has been cooperative but cautious. Bangkok sent representatives at the ambassadorial instead of ministerial level as promised earlier, to share Thailand's experience in effectively implementing sanctions mandated by UN Security Council resolutions. Although China and the US are working together on the ongoing sanctions, Beijing does not want to see the US take a prominent role without its inclusion.

At the Vancouver meeting, the US, Canada and Japan adopted a hardline policy of "maximum pressure" to further isolate North Korea. The West wants Asean to downgrade all ties with Pyongyang as much as possible. Quite a few Asean countries still maintain good relations with Pyongyang.

Beyond trade and North Korea, Mr Trump has no clue about Asean. He did not bother to name a US envoy to Asean or support the well-established young leadership, social and cultural programmes initiated by his predecessor.

The Trump administration will continue to engage with Thailand, one of its five key allies in the region, with expediency and flexibility. He has placed high value on Thailand and decided to normalise ties despite the Kingdom's less than impressive human rights record, something which the Obama administration refused to do after the 2014 coup.

Therefore, the upcoming annual Cobra Gold military exercise scheduled for mid-February will now be a display of American military might, international military networks and interoperability. It will also serve as a barometer of how the US will treat and reinvent its alliance with Thailand. This year's exercise will involve more than 14,000 troops mainly from Thailand and the US -- the largest number in the 35-year history of the event. Given the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the amphibious assaults with live-fire ammunition and massive non-combatant evacuation, which will form Cobra Gold's main exercises this time, are no coincidence. It is also highly likely that India will join the exercise next year as part of the new security alignment under the Indo-Pacific framework.

This year is also special as it is the 200th anniversary of their friendship, with extravagant ceremonies taking place in March. In the very first letter between American and Thai leaders, a correspondence between fifth US President James Monroe and Dit Bunnag, Phraya Klang (minister of finance and foreign minister) in 1818, the US president signed off by calling Siam (Thailand's former name) a "great and good friend".

It remains to be seen whether this old-fashioned but genuine sentiment will survive throughout the remaining years of the Trump administration.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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