Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Trump Administration Begins Engaging Southeast Asia, Region Waits for Details
May 9, 2017
Trump Administration Begins Engaging Southeast Asia, Region Waits for DetailsBy Murray Hiebert, Senior Adviser and Deputy Director (@MurrayHiebert1), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS
For the first few months of the Donald Trump administration, Southeast Asia wondered where it would fit in the new president’s global calculus. Trump had given few clues during the election campaign about engaging this dynamic region that had played such a critical role in Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia.
Three phone calls on April 29 and 30 from Trump to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore—and invitations for them to visit Washington—were part of an unexpected push to put Southeast Asia back on the U.S. radar. Vice President Mike Pence visited Indonesia April 20-22, and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington on May 4.
Six of the ministers came to CSIS for an off-the-record briefing for U.S. officials, members of Congress, Asian diplomats, business representatives, and academics on their meeting with Tillerson and aspirations for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia under the new administration. The topics they covered ranged from trade and investment to the South China Sea conflict and North Korea. It was clear from the discussion that the ministers had left the Tillerson meeting reassured about continued U.S. engagement.
The first of Trump’s three phone calls in late April went to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as the U.S. president sought to nudge Southeast Asian nations to suspend trade and diplomatic exchanges with North Korea to press the regime to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Trump also discussed Duterte’s efforts to rein in illicit drug use and invited him to visit Washington.
The U.S. president’s next two calls were to Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Trump urged the two leaders to cut their dealings with North Korea and invited them to visit the White House. He also expressed appreciation to Prayuth for his efforts to return political stability to Thailand in recent years, Thai officials say.
Both the Philippines and Thailand had fallen out with Washington in recent years, so it was important that Trump reengaged these two longtime strategic allies. Still, the White House framing of the calls as focused on North Korea missed a critical opportunity to allay concerns that the Trump administration is overly focused on Northeast Asia and lay out the strategic economic, political, and security rationale for U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia.
Trump’s engagement comes at a crucial time in U.S. relations with the region. Despite the previous administration’s focus on Southeast Asia, a recent poll of elites—including government officials, business representatives, academics, and journalists in the region—by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore found that nearly 75 percent of the respondents saw China, not the United States, as the most influential country now and over the next decade.
U.S. officials say Trump wanted to fix relations with the Philippines and Thailand because China had been making inroads there while Washington held the two countries at arm’s length. Trump also sought to draw the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore into the global campaign to isolate North Korea. Thailand had emerged as the fourth-largest exporter to North Korea by 2015, after China, India, and Russia. The Philippines was fifth. North Korean representatives also regularly passed through Singapore, which provided North Koreans visa-free entry until last year.
Washington’s relations with Thailand have been cool since General Prayuth mounted a coup in 2014 ending months of disruptive protests against an elected civilian prime minister. The United States suspended training for military officers and some weapons assistance programs to Bangkok, but it continued the annual Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. Bangkok responded by bolstering its ties with Beijing, including buying some Chinese tanks and announcing that it would purchase Chinese submarines.
Duterte’s relations with the previous administration were strained after he took office last June and launched a war on drugs that has killed over 8,000 people in the past 10 months. When the U.S. government criticized Duterte, he responded by calling Obama abusive names and, on a visit to China, threatened “separation” from the United States. Manila and Beijing have long had territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but Duterte has taken steps to mend fences with Beijing to court Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in the Philippines.
Human rights groups and some members of Congress sharply criticized the president for his invitation to Duterte. A few days after Trump’s call, in a shift from recent administrations, Tillerson told State Department employees that the new administration will pursue U.S. national security and economic interests before focusing on human rights in its dealings with other countries.
The mercurial Duterte for his part said he might be too busy to accept Trump’s invitation to visit Washington because of his plans to travel to Russia and Israel. Most observers still expect Duterte to accept the invitation, but think he probably will play hard to get since he expended considerable energy in pursuing rapprochement with China during an emotional dispute with the Obama administration. The Philippines is chair of ASEAN this year and is organizing the East Asia Summit in November, which Trump is expected to attend.
After their call, Prayuth said Trump had assured him that relations with the United States’ oldest Asian ally would become “closer than ever.” Prayuth, like Lee of Singapore, said he had accepted Trump’s invitation to visit Washington.
Trump’s calls to regional leaders were a good initial step, but Southeast Asians will be looking for the new administration to color in the details. They are waiting for specifics on how the new administration will engage the region on trade and investment now that Trump has dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are looking for clues during the upcoming visits by regional leaders to Washington about Trump’s policies toward the South China Sea. During the election campaign, Trump had criticized his predecessor for being soft in standing up to China in the South China Sea where Beijing has been building artificial islands and runways for military planes.
The first opportunity will come when Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam visits in the next few weeks.
Murray Hiebert is senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Biweekly UpdatePence visits Indonesia during first Asia trip
Vice President Mike Pence visited Jakarta on April 20-22 and met with Indonesian president Joko Widodo and other senior officials during the first visit to Indonesia by a member of the Trump administration. Pence witnessed the signing of more than $10 billion in energy and defense contracts between both countries and urged Indonesia to further lower barriers for U.S. businesses. Pence also visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and Indonesia’s national mosque after having praised Indonesia’s moderate form of Islam in an earlier press conference with the Indonesian president.
Trump invites Southeast Asian leaders to visit White House
President Donald Trump on April 29 and 30 called Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss security issues and economic ties and to extend invitations for the leaders to visit the White House. Trump had a “very friendly” conversation with Duterte regarding regional security, including North Korea, and discussed Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs. Trump reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to strengthening economic and security ties with Thailand and Singapore during his calls to Prayut and Lee, both of whom have accepted their White House invitations.
ASEAN summit statement includes softer South China Sea language
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on April 30 released the delayed Chairman’s Statement for the 30th ASEAN Summit, which took place April 26-29 in Manila. The statement removed references to Chinese “land reclamation and militarization” activities in the South China Sea and ASEAN concerns about the “escalation of activities” that had appeared in last year’s statement, while welcoming progress on a framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. ASEAN diplomats indicated that China’s Foreign Ministry and embassy officials had pressured the Philippines to keep China’s South China Sea activities off the ASEAN Summit agenda.
Duterte questions value of discussing South China Sea at ASEAN Summit
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte on April 27 said that discussing Chinese activities in the South China Sea at the April 26-29 ASEAN Summit was pointless because no ASEAN country dared to pressure Beijing. Duterte also said that he would not raise the Philippines’ international arbitration victory on China’s South China Sea claims at the ASEAN meeting, as it was a bilateral issue between Manila and Beijing. After the summit ended, Duterte on May 1 visited three Chinese Navy ships making a port call in his hometown of Davao, the first such visit since 2010, and said he is open to military exercises with China in the Sulu Sea.
ASEAN foreign ministers voice “grave concern” about North Korea tensions
The ASEAN foreign ministers on April 28 issued a statement expressing their “grave concern” about growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula following a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests. The statement followed an appeal from North Korea’s foreign minister for Southeast Asian support against the United States to prevent a “nuclear holocaust.” ASEAN rejected that appeal and instead issued its statement urging North Korea to fully comply with UN resolutions and for all parties to exercise self-restraint to deescalate tensions.
Prosecutors downgrade blasphemy charge against Jakarta governor
Indonesian prosecutors on April 20 downgraded the charges against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama from blasphemy to criminal harassment, and recommended that he be sentenced to two years’ probation with a possible one-year jail term if he commits a crime while on probation. The sentencing recommendation came a day after the Christian governor’s defeat by Muslim challenger Anies Baswedan in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections. A verdict is expected to be handed down by the North Jakarta District Court on May 9.
Najib warns that inclusive economic growth is needed to prevent extremism
Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on April 28 warned that Southeast Asia needed to pursue inclusive economic growth or risk marginalizing populations vulnerable to embracing violent extremism. Najib, speaking at an event for entrepreneurs in Manila, noted that growing economic disparity could be destabilizing as those left behind by globalization seek to overturn political systems. The sentiment was echoed by Philippine vice president Leni Robredo, who called on leaders to tackle inequality and pay more attention to the voiceless and powerless.
Malaysia agrees to $1.2 billion payment in 1MDB debt dispute with Abu Dhabi fund
Malaysia’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) agreed on April 21 to a deal with Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) to resolve a debt dispute between the two state investment funds and avoid arbitration proceedings. 1MDB agreed to pay $1.2 billion to IPIC this year, and negotiations will continue regarding a further $3.5 billion in disputed payments. IPIC declared 1MDB in default on interest payments last year and submitted a request for arbitration in June 2016 to the London Court of International Arbitrations seeking $6.5 billion in payments.
Indonesian legislature ratifies maritime border agreement with Philippines
Indonesia’s legislature on April 27 ratified a maritime border agreement with the Philippines setting the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) boundary between the two countries. The agreement was signed in 2014 following 20 years of negotiations and draws a 726-mile-long border in the Celebes Sea and Pacific Ocean. Following the ratification, Indonesian president Joko Widodo on May 1 joined Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to open a new shipping route connecting ports in Mindanao and Sulawesi.
Philippine lawmakers reject appointment of Lopez as environment secretary
The Philippine Commission on Appointments on May 3 rejected the confirmation of Regina Lopez as environment secretary, likely ending her crackdown on the Philippine mining industry. Lopez launched an audit of the Philippine mining industry on the first day of her interim appointment last July, and on February 2 ordered the closure of 23 of the country's 41 mines after the audit uncovered numerous environmental violations. Industry groups have said they will ask that the closures be rescinded once a new minister is in place.