The election of Donald Trump may have far reaching consequence for the region. I say “may’ as it is simply too early to tell what was simply electoral rhetoric and may actually be implemented. That’s a pretty appalling position to be in after an election, but that is what it is.
I’m going to consider this a post in progress for a while. I will keep adding links to the post and expanding on these with my own thoughts. As a guide however, my thoughts will cluster around three elements.
The first element are questions around Trump’s judgement, starting with the piece here. This piece was written well before his election, but raises a central question in his imminent elevation to the US Presidency. Which elements of his public bluster towards other countries reflected his desire to capture domestic votes, and which provide insights into his capacity, or lack thereof, to exercise sound judgement, particularly when it comes to issues relating to Southeast Asia? Personally I am pessimistic and see the signs as ominous, but accept that we can’t know for sure yet. Update- an early example of what I was alluding to is here.
An obvious response is that he doesn’t need to know everything, that’s what advisors are for. That’s true, but does little to allay my concerns; I have seen little evidence of good judgement in his advisors to date, nor any great capacity or willingness to listen to them anyway.
The second element is how Trump’s ascendancy will impact on superpower relations. Again I will say more later, but two schools of thought appear to be emerging.
One school suggests that Trump’s Presidency is effectively the beginning of the end for US dominance in the region, supported by the writings, here, here and here. A good summary of this position is former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Mack Williams’ view here that “…the gradually diminished US influence in the region [is]illustrated by South China Sea developments and the failure of the much vaunted US “pivot” “or rebalancing. The emergence of President Duterte in the Philippines has unleashed a dynamic which is the latest chapter in the US decolonisation process. This has dawned on the rest of ASEAN (save Singapore and possibly still Vietnam) with Malaysia following quickly down the Beijing route and Thailand’s military moving closer to China. It is likely to be a game breaker for the US strategy of opposing the Chinese push into the South China Sea. It has also severely dented US plans to use the new defence arrangements it forced on Duterte’s predecessor as a cover for rebuilding a military presence back into the Philippines – twenty years after the withdrawal of the major US bases ( Subic Bay and Clark). That enhanced military presence was seen as vital by US planners to support the containment of China – so central to the pivot”.
If Trump is not a cause there is certainly a strong argument for a correlation that the US is increasingly a spent force in the region. That’s the view of Dennis Ignatius, former Malaysian ambassador to Chile, Argentina and Canada, in arguing that ASEAN leaders have been the archtitects of their own fate through “Overdependence on China for investments and trade and the treachery of corrupt politicians [having] now rendered ASEAN completely vulnerable to Chinese hegemony”. The full piece, which pulls few punches detailing the weakness of ASEAN leaders and the Chinese skill, patience and grinding determination in exploiting these opportunities, is recommended reading and available here.
The other school is espoused by Stratfor, a forecasting company analyzing world affairs, which outlines a more moderate position, albeit with a North Asia emphasis, in their post here suggesting that…
In some ways, a Trump victory represents an extension, rather than a repudiation, of recent trends in U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. As Stratfor has argued, in the coming years the United States would begin to shift more of the burden of regional security to partners such as Japan and South Korea. That process, however volatile, is likely to continue under a Trump administration.
As the United States becomes relatively less assertive in East Asia, Japan, South Korea and other members of the U.S. alliance framework will pick up the slack. In Japan and South Korea, this will manifest in accelerated military investment and potentially even gradual steps toward developing a nuclear arsenal should U.S. security commitments to the region see a major restructuring. Moreover, the coming years will likely see Tokyo push more forcefully to revise constitutional limits on fielding a “normal” military — a process that will see Japan emerge as the leading regional player in efforts to check China’s rise.
China likely will approach a Trump administration with guarded optimism. On the one hand, Trump’s lack of a diplomatic track record and penchant for ostentatious political remarks makes him something of an unknown — a quality that could generate new friction in the U.S.-China relationship. On the other hand, China’s leaders look on Trump’s self-proclaimed pragmatism — and relative disinterest in human rights issues abroad — as a potential bridge to increased U.S.-Chinese cooperation, or at least a less cantankerous relationship. Nonetheless, Beijing will guard against any effort by a Trump administration to impose punitive economic measures, such as through restrictive tariffs on Chinese goods.
The chances for U.S. ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are extremely low under a Trump administration, barring a sudden and complete reversal of what was one of Trump’s key positions throughout the presidential campaign. And without U.S. participation, the TPP is dead: The agreement stipulates that at least six signatories with a collective gross domestic product equal to 85 percent of the pact’s total GDP must ratify the agreement for it to go into effect. The TPP’s failure is a blow to key U.S. regional partners, mostly notably Japan. Tokyo not only staked much of its own domestic political and economic reforms on Japan’s entry to the TPP but also vocally foregrounded the pact’s strategic importance for U.S.-Japan ties and for Washington’s broader regional position. With the TPP likely to fail, China will move swiftly to more actively promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.
[Update: As of end November 2016 the TPP is now as offically dead as it can be and the Chinese led intitative is gaining momentum at a startling pace].
The third element is how the countries within Southeast Asia may shift in their relationships with each other. One view, espoused here, is that that they may well see it in their interests to move closer.
The next four years will be interesting indeed.
Note: If you are interested in reading more on the Trump election from different perspectives I am running similar ongoing posts on some of my other blogs here and here.