Regional divisions and Trump's indifference are hampering strategic stability in southeast Asia.

Donald Trump visits Vietnam. Credit: White House/Shealah Craighead By Tim Huxley, Executive Director, IISS-Asia

Donald Trump is rounding off his 12-day Asian tour with a two-day stop in Manila to join a leaders’ summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as the East Asian Summit, which brings  ASEAN member-states together with dialogue partners  including China, India and the United States. This is an ideal opportunity for the US president to set out his country’s strategy for the region. Specifically, Mr Trump could re-assert American strategic primacy in the Asia-Pacific in the face of a multi-dimensional challenge from China. Such a move would ease doubts over the future of US leadership as America’s relative power declines, concerns encouraged by the president’s election victory a year ago.

However, the president is unlikely to exploit this opportunity effectively. Trump’s administration has made clear it is not continuing its predecessor’s multi-dimensional rebalance to the Asia-Pacific (often referred to as ‘the pivot’), which had included an important economic dimension in the form of the incipient Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement Trump has abandoned.

Trump’s Asian tour has so far underlined his emphasis on an ‘America first’ policy and rejection of multilateralism (something he went out of his way to reiterate at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam on 10 November) and his transactional view of alliances and other partnerships. He has also displayed a predilection for announcing headline-grabbing business deals over trying to construct a framework for regional relations, an effort that might better defend broader US interests – as well as those of Washington’s regional friends – in the long term.

The Trump administration’s immediate focus on managing the North Korean crisis may be undermining larger US strategic interests in the region. The nadir of the trip before Manila came in Beijing, where Trump – according to the New York Times – ‘projected an air of deference to China’, and referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as ‘a very special man’. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump had told Xi that he was ‘a strong man’, who could ‘solve’ the North Korean crisis. Trump praised Xi for leading China so effectively that it had left the US ‘so far behind’.

That performance will hardly bolster the resolve of US allies and security partners, and other countries seeking reassurance from Washington in the face of China’s military, economic and diplomatic attempts to shift the regional balance of power in its favour. Indeed, it reinforced concerns that the US might be willing to sacrifice interests in the South China Sea and Taiwan’s security in order to gain Xi’s cooperation on North Korea.

ASEAN’s weakness

The ten countries of ASEAN – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – are highly diverse in their political systems and levels of economic development. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rhetoric surrounding the Association sometimes outstrips the reality. While it has made advances in economic cooperation – notably by establishing an ASEAN Free Trade Area – it is decidedly weak in the political and diplomatic sphere, where unanimity among its members on key issues is conspicuously absent.

Singaporean public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani has called ASEAN a miracle on account of its supposed role in cementing peace and security among its members, but it has notably failed to play a significant role in ensuring regional security during the present decade. It has been unable to respond effectively to the Rohingya crisis in member-state Myanmar. Indeed, this issue has created a new intra-ASEAN divide, with Indonesia and Malaysia demanding action in the face of indifference or intransigence among most other members.

At the strategic level, it has failed to find a strong common position on the South China Sea, where China has over the last half-decade embarked on a crash programme of island-expansion, militarisation and harassment of other claimants. During this period China has subverted smaller, weaker members in order to undermine Southeast Asian opposition to the reshaping of the regional order in Beijing’s favour.

Manila meetings unlikely to restore confidence in US

Trump’s regional tour has provided a unique opportunity for the new administration to set out a strategy and policies in defence of a regional order which has for decades brought considerable peace and prosperity to the Asia-Pacific, and has hugely benefited the US. A coherent ASEAN, with a clear view of its own role in ensuring regional stability and an understanding of how the US under Trump should engage with the region, could have helped to shape Washington’s thinking about what is at stake and how it could be protected. But ASEAN’s internal divisions have made that impossible. Serious or not, Trump’s offer in Hanoi on 12 November to mediate in the South China Sea betrayed a lack of understanding of the vital interests at stake there.

There have been some positive sidelights in Manila. Though the emphasis when Trump met with the Australian and Japanese prime ministers on 13 November was on North Korea, the three also stressed the importance of promoting a ‘free and open’ region. And given the political upsets we have seen since last year – including Trump’s own election as president – one is ready for surprises. But Trump’s track record means it would be a surprise of the first order if he were able to use his two days in Manila to restore regional confidence in US leadership, or galvanise a coherent response to the fraying of the regional order and resultant threat to strategic stability in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific.

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