The rule of the jungle

Trump gives Southeast Asian autocrats a free pass, but leaves them wondering about their security

Hunter Marston

PHOTO: AP

International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

23 November 2017

Southeast Asia’s strongmen leaders will welcome Trump’s lack of interest in human rights abuses, but the region’s security is now in question following his trip, Hunter Marston writes.

Donald Trump left the Philippines early last week after 12 days in five different Asian countries. He opted to skip the East Asia Summit, the critical security gathering of the region’s major powers. In his wake, he left behind a maelstrom of uncertainty over his administration’s regional policy. But there are two key takeaways Southeast Asian leaders can derive from Trump’s trip: he will pay no heed to human rights and the repressive behaviours of regional autocrats; and Southeast Asian countries are on their own when it comes to national security.

His consistent ‘America first’ message undercut the administration’s push for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ that senior officials have been promoting lately. Rather than the traditional liberal international order, the United States has upheld since the end of World War II, the Trump administration seems to welcome a darker, more Hobbesian worldview.

Trump laid out this vision in a speech in Warsaw this summer, where he described an international order in which nations pursue their economic interests on a competitive, bilateral basis and national sovereignty is paramount to individual rights.

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Speaking at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump doubled down on this worldview of a go-it-alone, every-nation-for-itself approach to global trade. His message: “I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.” And just for good measure, he added: “We will respect your independence and your sovereignty. We want you to be strong, prosperous, and self-reliant.”

Trump’s message of sovereignty resonates with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which prioritises non-interference and autonomy.

The Communist Party of Vietnam must be relieved that an American president is no longer hectoring them over their muzzling of dissidents and lack of progress on human rights. Some nations have seized the opportunity to accelerate domestic repression. In Cambodia, during the same week Trump visited Southeast Asia, Hun Sen moved to illegalise and disband the only remaining opposition to his party.

In the Philippines, Trump enjoyed an obvious rapport with his counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, even laughing when the latter heckled journalists by calling them “spies.” President Trump has effused over the thuggish leader’s dealing of the drug war by telling him that he’s doing a great job. In doing so, the American leader has jettisoned American values and given carte blanche to regional autocrats.

While Southeast Asian leaders may breathe a sigh of relief knowing Trump will not grill them over human rights abuses, they are left wondering where the United States stands on the regional security order.

To allies and partners in the region, America First stokes widely shared fears of a US withdrawal from Asia. This trend, already underway in the Obama era, is likely to increase tensions and raises the chances of armed conflict.

Nations like Thailand and the Philippines have begun courting Beijing in an attempt to hedge against a potential US withdrawal. But far from band-wagoning with China, as some international relations realists would predict, Southeast Asian countries are diversifying their security relations with external partners such as Japan and India to hedge against this uncertainty. Perhaps the lone deliverable of Trump’s trip was renewed talk of the “Quad,” a regional defence network linking the United States, Australia, India, and Japan.

For its part, Vietnam finds its interests increasingly aligning with the United States on security matters. In just a few short years, the two countries have made rapid progress on strengthening defence ties. The Obama administration lifted a ban on the sale of lethal weapons in 2016, and plans are now underway for the visit of a US aircraft carrier to Cam Ranh Bay in 2018.

But Hanoi increasingly appears isolated in its resistance to Chinese expansion into the territorial waters of neighbouring countries in the South China Sea. And the Communist Party remains split on whether to stick with China, with whom it has a complicated relationship or to embrace the United States’ security guarantee.

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In order to earn the trust of Vietnam and to persuade wayward allies like the Philippines and Thailand to return to the United States’ corner, the Trump administration will need to do far more to restore the credibility of the United States’ security guarantee. That begins with consistency of messaging, which seems an impossible task for the current administration.

To this end, Trump’s national security team should address three questions: First, does “America First” leave room for smaller countries such as those in Southeast Asia? Second, where does the United States delineate national interests from international interests? And finally, will the Trump administration back up American commitments to the security and well-being of its allies and partners in Asia?

Despite the Trump team’s chaotic departure from Asia, the balance of power in the region still favours the United States. However, Beijing is moving swiftly to take advantage of regional anxieties, and Southeast Asia’s strongmen have consolidated authoritarian control in undemocratic countries.

Having bungled the opportunity to articulate its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Trump administration has its work cut out in Asia.

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