ASEAN faces higher security price under Trump
By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/20
US President-elect Donald Trump is to be sworn in on January 20. What are his policies toward Southeast Asia? What kind of impact will these policies have on Sino-US relations?
In Chinese international studies circles, there are generally three views. First, Trump may turn to isolationism to implement his "America first" campaign promise, which will make room for China in Southeast Asia. Second, he may strengthen the US military presence in Southeast Asia, increasing tensions in the Sino-US strategic game. Third, his claim of withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) strikes a blow at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries which have made much effort to join the TPP.
Besides, his attitude toward Muslims will affect US relations with ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. These factors mean ASEAN may no longer rely so much on the US in security, and may even become a buffer zone for Sino-US conflicts.
Compared with domestic affairs, the US administrative system has a bigger say over foreign policy. Presidents and their security and foreign policy teams are key decision-makers. Therefore, analyzing the characteristics of these people can contribute to a better understanding of Trump's foreign policy after he takes office.
Trump is very confident but lacks administrative experience. He emphasizes business logic but is unwilling to follow the rules when pursuing benefits. And he dislikes elites within the system but does not have a team of his own. The personnel he chose for his diplomatic and security team also share his characteristics. They prefer to use confrontational approaches to dealing with issues. However, they know deterrence is more cost-effective and easier to implement than war. They tend to compromise in order to seek maximum returns, and business benefits are more important than values for them.
Trump had many campaign promises, including cutting taxes, reviving the US manufacturing sector and expanding the military. He prefers to build up the US' strengths from within rather than using expansion to make the US great again. Besides, he is more familiar with domestic affairs. In the case of limited funds, he will have to give priority to domestic spending.
For foreign affairs, he will rely more on the US allies' and partner countries' power. These will cause a strategic contraction of the US, or at least a decline of intervention in global affairs.
This also applies to Southeast Asia. Even though the US pays much attention to Southeast Asia, the overall situation of the Sino-US strategic game will not change.
But the changes in the balance of strength in the region are in China's favor. Countries such as Singapore and Japan are strongly against the US withdrawal from the TPP. Facing these, Trump, to maintain the US status and influence in Southeast Asia and make the related countries bear more responsibilities for security issues, will have to increase arms sales and make concessions in the TPP. He may accept the TPP after including more favorable terms for his country. In addition, Trump may avoid unnecessarily stirring up the Muslim world on the advice of his diplomatic team.
To sum up, Southeast Asia is an area both China and the US will compete for. In the next few years, China will focus more on the area so as to deal with issues of its east, especially the Taiwan question. Southeast Asian countries also have desires to improve their security ties with China. In this case, Trump's policy toward ASEAN will likely be that these countries should pay a higher price for the security the US could provide.
The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. email@example.com