Trade and industry, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

10 February 2017

Southeast Asia is holding its breath and waiting to see whether US foreign policy under President Trump will reassure their economic and security concerns, Stephen Nagy writes.

General Mattis’s visit to South Korea and Japan on 2 to 4 February 2017 to allay concerns over the US’s security commitment to the region has been lauded for its clear message to the US’s alliance partners in Northeast Asia. Strong messaging concerning North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear development, an explicit reiteration that the Senkaku islands fall under security guarantees of Article 5 of the Japan-US security agreement, and an overt condemnation of China’s perceived unconstructive behaviour and of “shredding the trust of its neighbours” in both the East China and South China Seas has left Northeast Asian countries, for better or worse, with a much clearer picture of their bilateral relations going forward under a Trump presidency.

Noticeably absent from the General’s visit, and in President Trump’s East Asian strategy, has been any mention of Southeast Asian countries, in particular, those who have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The oblique references to the July 2016 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, which rejected Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, during discussions in Japan offered little to smaller countries in Southeast Asia with no capacity to counter China’s perceived assertive behaviour in the disputed waters.

More on this: Japan may be sleepwalking toward disaster as tensions with China mount in the South China Sea

Considering the asymmetric relationship Southeast Asian countries have with China in the economic and security realms, and the challenges this reality poses for them in terms of making progress in their territorial disputes with China, many see Japan-Southeast Asian strategic partnerships and Japan’s multifaceted relationship with the US as interrelated, synergistic, and a boon to their security anxieties. South Korea’s silence on issues in the South China Sea, despite sharing many of the same concerns as Japan over freedom of navigation and open resource and trade routes through the South China Sea, leads Southeast Asian countries to view their security through the lens of the quality, commitment and strengthening of the US-Japan alliance.

There are several reasons for this. First, Southeast Asian nations (excluding landlocked Cambodia and Laos) see the US-Japan alliance as a relationship that has non-tangential benefits from a strong and confident Japan that is not concerned about abandonment or about the US’s commitment to the alliance. Fear of abandonment would push Japan to divert valuable resources to the normalisation and expansion of their military, rather than expanding the quality and quantity of their strategic partnerships in the region. This would be a loss for Southeast Asian states who view strategic partnerships as comprehensive arrangements where security is not the focus of the relationships.

To illustrate, the Japan-Vietnam, Japan-Malaysia and Japan-Indonesia strategic partnerships link economic partnership to maritime affairs, which include economic assistance but also the “seeking of a new cooperation mechanism between littoral States and user States for enhancement of safety, security and environmental protection.”

Second, President Trump’s transactional diplomacy and his interest in a more forceful approach to US-China relations mean that despite tweet diplomacy and pre-election rhetoric, the US will continue to bolster its military commitment in the region. We have already seen this with a commitment by the US to upgrade and build facilities on Philippine military bases as well as a continuation of military ties with the Philippines. Moreover, with the US-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of Japanese security policy in the region, Japan, both out of necessity and self-interest, will need to step up its commitment under a Trump administration that is inclined to demand more from its alliance partners.

More on this: The TPP looks like it’s dead in the water, but that won’t be the end of regional trade deals

Based on that calculus, countries in Southeast Asia with territorial disputes with China, while disappointed with the decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), view President Trump’s harsh criticism of Chinese trade practices and support for a tougher line when it comes to trade policy and China as a development that can be leveraged. It’s true that countries in the region may have preferred that the US and Japan both be tethered to the region economically through the TPP, an initiative that had geopolitical, economic and security ramifications. However Southeast Asian nations see Japan strengthening relations with the US, the potential advent of a bilateral trade agreement between Japan and the US, and efforts by Japan to, at a minimum, find a way to resurrect the TPP with the remaining 11 members or, more optimistically, to convince the US to agree to a recrafted (and renamed) agreement that brings in more intraregional and potentially extra regional partners, as developments that help them mitigate the precarious balancing act they face when dealing with their economic relationship and security concerns with China.

With this in mind, Southeast Asian countries, as well as China, South Korea and Japan, will be focused on the political dynamics of the Trump-Abe meetings on 10 and 11 February. Importantly, they will pay special attention to whether Trump’s approach to the region eschews diplomacy for a bolstered military approach, or whether Trump and Abe will be able to create the broad framework for a bilateral agreement that includes economy and trade, security, cybersecurity and cooperation at the bilateral level and in international organisations that can be used as a template for rethinking and recreating the Indo-Pacific regional architecture. To do this, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump will need to find a way to make seemingly incompatible agendas meet, namely the President’s America First principles, Japan’s regional security concerns and commitment to regional and global leadership in multilateral institutions, and the economic and security concerns of Southeast Asian countries.

Against the backdrop of the 19th Party Congress and the selection of China’s next Standing Committee, this template must not be seen to be containing China. It would elicit a strong nationalist response demanding action in the South or East China Seas that would affect the economic and security interests of stakeholders in Southeast Asia as well as Northeast Asia. To do this, a clear message must be sent to Beijing that the US and Japan, while concerned with China’s behaviour in the international arena, seek to enhance economic and security cooperation that includes countries in Southeast Asia and aims to bring stability and predictability to the region by stressing international cooperation and rules-based relationships.

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