WASHINGTON: In his first year in office, President Donald Trump broke sharply with many longstanding traditions in US foreign policy. Surprisingly, the attention the administration is paying to Southeast Asia has been one area of relative continuity.
Before the Obama administration, US governments failed in key moments to consistently focus on the region.
Former president Bill Clinton’s clinical and detached response to the Asian financial crisis from 1997 to 1998 undermined the United States’ standing among Southeast Asian countries hit hard by the crisis.
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s decision to skip two ASEAN Regional Forum meetings in three years underscored the George W Bush administration’s preoccupation with the Middle East.
REVITALISING MULTILATERALISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Perhaps the signature feature of Obama’s pivot, or rebalance, was an attempt to transform what had long been an episodic and ad hoc focus on Southeast Asia into sustained, high-level engagement.
In the space of a few months early in his presidency, the Obama administration signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, joined the East Asia Summit and appointed the first resident ambassador to ASEAN. Obama sustained his focus on Southeast Asia throughout his two terms, culminating with the historic Sunnylands summit with ASEAN leaders in 2016.
While the Obama administration’s pivot placed a heavy focus on revitalising alliances in Northeast Asia, its focus on Southeast Asia and multilateralism in Asia were perhaps most notable.
The rebalance focused on forging closer economic ties through the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), embracing ASEAN-centred multilateral frameworks and building stronger security ties with allies and emerging partners.
These integrated lines of effort forged a compelling strategic narrative that the United States was committed to enduring leadership in the region.
MAINTAINING THE PIVOT’S MOMENTUM
In its first year, the Trump administration sought to maintain the pivot’s momentum — at least on the security side — while avoiding the rebalance label.
President Trump welcomed the leaders of Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in Washington between May and October 2017.
In November, the President embarked on a 12-day trip to Asia with stops in Vietnam and the Philippines to attend the APEC summit, a US–ASEAN summit and the East Asian summit, as well as hold bilateral meetings.
But the missing ingredient has been the lack of an economic engagement strategy. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP signalled that he would embark on a very different trade policy that would be more transactional, defensive and bilaterally focused.
This has created uncertainty and scepticism in a region that views economic engagement as the foundation of security.
‘FREE AND OPEN INDO PACIFIC’ LACKS STRATEGY
The President’s speech at the APEC summit rolled out a new framework for his administration’s Asia policy under the banner of a "free and open Indo-Pacific".
This new framing is clearly an attempt to lay the foundations for a compelling strategic narrative to rebrand the rebalance, as well as signal an alternative to China’s emerging regional narrative based on Xi Jinping’s China Dream and Belt and Road Initiative.
But the "free and open Indo-Pacific" vision remains well short of a strategy. It is exceedingly vague and specific policies have been slow to materialise.
Despite the heavy focus on the maritime domain, Trump’s speech made no mention of the South China Sea.
The adjectives "free and open" imply economic openness, yet Trump has bluntly rejected any trade arrangements without reciprocity and the elimination of trade deficits at their core. Trump’s offer to negotiate bilateral trade agreements has been met with a cool response by potential partners, many of whom are focused instead on launching a TPP without the United States.
Without a viable and compelling economic component to its Asia strategy, the Trump administration is left with focusing on Obama-era security policies, which need to evolve.
The administration needs to more clearly articulate how a network of regional security partnerships will bolster a rules-based Indo-Pacific order that can continue to deliver peace and prosperity.
The slow staffing of Asia policy positions at the State and Defence Departments (including the failure to appoint an ASEAN ambassador), has compounded the difficulty of formulating, articulating and implementing Trump’s regional policies.
Trump’s embrace of ASEAN is perhaps surprising, given his evident disdain for multilateralism and the growing dysfunction of ASEAN itself.
ASEAN finds itself in an increasingly contested environment, and it grows more divided on key issues. China has sought to divide and conquer ASEAN by putting tremendous pressure on smaller countries like Cambodia and Laos to refrain from forging ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea.
Yet ASEAN remains highly relevant for advancing US strategic and diplomatic goals in the region. In part this is due to geography — ASEAN is centrally located at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN-led frameworks, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asian Summit, provide a venue for the United States to work with like-minded partners to help define issues and shape regional goals and expectations.
The ability to meet with the 10 member countries and the "plus" countries at one set of meetings, both multilaterally and in bilateral discussions on the margins, creates diplomatic economies of scale.
As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis puts it:
A stable region requires us all to work together, and that is why we support greater engagement with ASEAN. Because no single bilateral relationship can get us where we want to go.
ASEAN’s recent difficulties in maintaining unity on key issues has somewhat undercut its ability to drive the regional agenda and steer outcomes, but it continues to provide critical ballast that helps maintain stability in an increasingly contested strategic environment.
ASEAN has developed and promoted norms that have shaped regional expectations of behaviour and have become embedded in an open and inclusive regional architecture.
On the economic side, ASEAN has encouraged governments to maintain relative openness to investment and commerce. In the security realm, ASEAN has promoted norms of non-coercion, mutual respect and emphasis on dialogue.
These regional frameworks have been critical to promoting a rules-based order that imposes some degree of normative pressure on countries seeking to subvert collective norms, such as China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea.
Creating a compelling strategic narrative that builds confidence in US leadership will remain an uphill challenge without a credible approach on trade and economic engagement.
But at least the Trump administration has demonstrated that it has learned the diplomatic advantages of "showing up" in the region and embracing ASEAN-led summitry.
In one of the weaker moments in its history, ASEAN has demonstrated its continued relevance.
Amy E Searight is Senior Advisor and Director of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This commentary was first published on East Asia Forum. Read it here.