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Advice for the 45th president of the US: A view from Asean

Donald Trump’s administration must make Asia and Asean a priority



What does Asean want the next president of the United States to do? This is a much harder question to answer than a few months ago. Asean is at an inflection point.
On October 21, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said before a packed Philippine-China business forum in Beijing: “I announce my separation from the United States… in military, maybe not social, and economics also,” at the same time declaring his pivot to China: “I will be dependent on you for all time.” He went even further in declaring his new foreign policy approach, stating: “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, the Philippines and Russia. It is the only way.”
While the Philippines has been more open and dramatic about the switch in its orientation and mindset, in reality, some Asean states have been realigning towards China in differing degrees for quite some time. Cambodia and Laos and, to some extent, Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia have all moved into the Chinese orbit without fanfare.
Yet, it would be wrong to believe that most Asean countries are only interested in one set of relationships. In fact, given their economic, trade and cultural ties, Asean countries want to engage with all the major powers in the world and, in particular, to enjoy good relationships with both the United States and China. And, they also want the United States and China to enjoy good relations with each other. Asean understands that better relations between the United States and China make life easier for the smaller and middle-sized countries in Asia.
With this as background, and bearing in mind the election rhetoric and the inward-looking and protectionist mood of the US electorate, it is crucial that the first message Asian countries hear from President-elect Trump is one of continuity, emphasising that the United States means to stay in Asia, that US engagement with Asia and Asean will remain unchanged, and that America’s word is good.
The United States can do several other things to reassure Asean partners:
•    The first policy initiative that would speak volumes and go a long way to signal commitment would be for the new secretary of state to make Asia and Asean the first trip abroad. This would signal at once that the United States intends to pay attention to the most dynamic region in the world and that it intends to maintain its position as a key player in Asia. Dean Rusk made Asia his first stop for his first visit abroad as secretary of state. Hillary Clinton was the second secretary of state to do so. Asia and Asean hope there will be a third under the Trump administration.
• It is crucial that the US president attends every Asean regional meeting, particularly as the Philippines will be the Asean chair next year. The Philippines chose to go to the international arbitral tribunal over the South China Sea, angering China.
Yet, President Xi Jinping still attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Manila amid bilateral tensions. Few platforms in Asia engage all the leaders of the region. Not to show up would suggest that the United States has yielded or degraded its leadership role.
• The US must continue to deepen its relationship with Asean. In 2009, the United States initiated an annual US-Asean Summit. This was an excellent initiative by President Barack Obama and should be continued by President-elect Trump. 
Maritime capacity-building and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief would be good places to focus going forward, given the hyper typhoons and earthquakes in the region. The United States has also played an important role since 9/11 in providing assistance to Asean with counter-terrorism capacity-building and intelligence exchanges. This too could be stepped up, given increased concerns about the probability of an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
• The United States should continue to play a role in upholding the regional rules-based order through its military presence, and to support Asean in building a strong regional architecture. Routine freedom-of-navigation operations are useful in this regard.
• But the US stake in Asean is not based solely on security. US economic ties to Asean are important, and growing, and must be a continued priority.
Asean’s total population is more than 600 million people. Two-way US-Asean trade is worth US$234 billion, and Asean is the fourth-largest goods export market for the US after Canada, Mexico and China.
The US should continue to cultivate this longstanding business and trade partnership.
• The new administration must send out a balanced message on trade. During the election campaign, a large segment of the electorate came out against international trade, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in particular. The United States is among the top two trading nations in the world. Trade and investment formed the basis for US growth and prosperity and the strengthening of US relationships with the world. Trade needs to be rebuilt. Asia has been enormously important for the United States in terms of trade relations. Years of hard negotiations have gone into the TPP trade agreement, the largest trade deal in history that is a win-win situation for all sides. Going forward, the new administration should work with Asia for a trade architecture with which we are all comfortable.
• Above all, the US must understand that many countries in Asean are going through political transitions and will be primarily focused on internal affairs for the foreseeable future. Thailand will see a new monarch installed soon and a new government when elections are held at the end of next year, as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has publicly promised. The Philippine president is new and so is the government of Myanmar. Indonesia’s President Jokowi, elected in 2014, is arguably still new and focused on his domestic agenda. His foreign policy agenda is still being defined. Internal development will be the top priority for these countries, and their foreign policy priorities are likely to be coloured by, and flow from, their domestic economic and development agendas.
The new US administration will have to be patient with Asean as these transitions take place. Asean may not be as active or dynamic as in previous years, and it may be more difficult to achieve consensus among members. Of course, these ebbs and flows happen with most expanded groupings.
Many Asean countries increasingly will not accept external criticisms of their policies. They also perceive a double standard between how the US treats matters of democracy and human rights in Asia versus the Middle East. Asians question, for example, why the military leadership of Egypt was accepted as legitimate after it forcibly removed the country’s elected president (albeit amid protests and demonstrations), and yet Thailand has been marginalised and isolated under similar circumstances.

Professor Chan Heng Chee is chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Published : December 14, 2016

By : Chan Heng Chee The Straits Times Asia News Network