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Trump will not abandon Southeast Asia, says US expert

Jan 20. 2017
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US PRESIDENT Donald Trump, who formally took office yesterday, might create concerns in some parts of the world because of his harsh policies to “Make America Great Again” but he will not abandon Southeast Asia, a US expert said yesterday.

The US under Trump would confront and have conflicts with China over economic and security matters, but it would be a huge mistake if countries in Southeast Asia played the China card, said David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC.

Although Trump has not clearly defined his policy towards Asia-Pacific, Shambaugh anticipated there would be continuity in general policy towards the region. 

“Although Trump said members of ally countries should pay a fair share [for a security arrangement], I don’t anticipate a dramatic change that would make the US return to isolationism,” he said. “I don’t think we could see significant change at the regional level.”

The billionaire president has brought a lot of business executives into his administration, including the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, suggesting his economic-oriented policies would dominate, rather than human rights. 

“Thailand and other countries will not come under as much pressure as in previous years,” Shambaugh said. “Human rights are already embedded in the American policy, it is a key part of foreign policy but the emphasis that diplomats give it might be different,” he said. 

Shambaugh, who is also an expert on China affairs, suggested that Asean countries have well balanced relations with both China and the US.

While the two superpowers are competing and conflicting in some aspects, relations between Washington and Beijing are not a zero-sum game, he said. 

“There is no reason at all that any countries in Southeast Asia should not to have strong relations with both the US and China,” he said. “And it is not the American position either that countries in Southeast Asia choose between the US and China,” he said. 

“All members of Asean have quite well-developed relations with China,” he said. “Every Asean country, such as Thailand which is a long-time ally [of the US], should develop strong ties with China in terms of culture, commerce and recently military,” he said. 

“That’s fine. You train your military officers with China as well as with the US, nothing wrong with that. You buy weapons from US, Sweden and China, nothing wrong with that,” he said. 

Security ties between Thailand and the US are deep and strong, he said. “Thailand and the US held 83 joint exercises last year and, from my research, had only nine with China. 83 to 9 is a very big difference,” he said. 

The US security relationship increased with many countries in Asean significantly with Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar. “The US military assistance to Asean is something China cannot match,” he said.

However, playing only the China card would be a mistake, he said and noted that Myanmar has had a bad experience since the previous regime. 

“The US is thousands of miles away, but China is right next door, but the US can serve as a balancing effort and it can offer many advantages especially diplomatic but not serious economic benefits,” he said. 

China is obviously growing fast; its trade with Asean was worth $527 billion last year, double the Asean-US trade.

While China can provide a lot of economic interest to countries in the region, the US expert urged them to be wary. Chinese purchasing real estate in many countries is not desirable, he warned.

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