President-Elect Trump’s ‘Deals Must not be Done at the Expense of Other Nations’

By The Irrawaddy 15 November 2016

As Donald Trump is poised to become the 45th US President in January, what significant policy changes can we expect in Asia under his administration?

The Asian policy of the 45th President will be an acrobatic one with a lot of somersaults, especially in relation to trade issues. The region’s biggest economies will be under pressure from the Trump administration to give more concessions. This is one priority area in which Trump could show his supporters that he is making America richer again, and quickly—by squeezing the biggest importers from Asia: China, Japan and South Korea.

The suspension of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will impact the US’s overall credibility and leadership in this part of the world. The ongoing negotiation of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership must be accelerated to ensure it is completed as soon as possible to stimulate economic growth in the region.

For security matters, there will be some incremental changes that will not undermine the US’s own strategic strength in the region. Close security cooperation with Japan and South Korea remains the most pivotal part of US presence in the region—there will be no dramatic change there.

Do you think the Trump administration will completely abandon Obama’s initiative to ‘pivot to Asia’ as regional analysts are suggesting that the ‘pivot’ itself is now over?

Under the Obama administration, the US’s overall relations with Asia, especially with Southeast Asia, were considered to be very close. It has served as much-needed consistency over the past six years, speaking out for the region on issues related to peace and security.

With President Trump, this fundamental [aspect of the relationship] could change as he seeks more reciprocal actions from friends and allies in the region. In other words, his preponderance for making deals could permeate into diplomatic areas, which could spell trouble for Asian countries. He cannot expect to win all the best deals for America. Indeed, America is a great country, but deals must not be done not at the expense of other nations, particularly the Asians. Time will tell.

What will be the short and long term impacts on the US’s traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea? In recent years, we have seen that China has been quite aggressive in the East and South China Seas in regard to its maritime activities. With this in mind what policies will the Trump administration adopt?  

Japan and South Korea are well aware that in the post-Cold War era, they have had to adjust to a new strategic environment. Japan has been at the forefront under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since his return as prime minister, he has raised Japan’s international profile, especially on security and strategic matters. Japan is allowed to trade arms and engage in combat if its allies are harmed. Now, Tokyo must work hard to find additional security tools to strengthen its own defense.

For South Korea, the situation in the Korean Peninsula has dictated the future direction of Seoul’s defense posture. With North Korea’s continued nuclear ambitions, South Korea needs the US’s security and protection at all costs. Without the six-party talks, which have been suspended for the time being, it would be difficult for South Korea to assert any pressure on North Korea. However, given the fragility of Korean politics as of now, some gradual shifts in policies are possible, especially regarding Seoul’s ties with Beijing and Tokyo.

Thailand is regarded as a traditional US ally, but the there has been tension in recent years between Bangkok and Washington, demonstrated in the downsizing of the Cobra Gold military training exercise, and by the exchange of harsh words between the two countries as Thailand has been seen as growing closer to China.

Thailand-US relations are [some of] the oldest in Asia, and began in 1832. With such a strong foundation, both countries have been working shoulder to shoulder throughout its history, especially during the five decades of the Cold War. However, following the May 22 power seizure two years ago, Thai-US ties have been frozen without positive momentum forward.

After the passage of a national referendum in Thailand on the next charter in August, there has been some tangible progress. More senior officials from both countries have been meeting to discuss how to improve their cooperation. Next year, the region’s largest military exercise, the Cobra Gold, will continue as scheduled and will not be downsized. With the new attitude towards the US prevailing in the Philippines and Malaysia, the overall security profile of Thailand in the US global strategy has increased.

Thailand is one of five American treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific including the Philippines, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Last month, during his visit here, Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs called Thailand ‘a natural ally’—a far cry from his previous visit, in which Thailand was still viewed with contempt.

Furthermore, Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia, is scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on November 25 to hold talks with the Thai government in order to reassure them of the importance of Thailand in the new Trump administration. Thailand would like to review its ties with the US so as to respond to the fast-changing regional security landscape.

Under the Obama administration, Washington became closer to Burma: President Obama visited the country twice, praised the political opening and lifted sanctions. We could have predicted continuity and strong engagement if Hillary Clinton had come to power, but now, with Trump as the President-elect, it has created uncertainty. How do you foresee US policy shifting in regard to Burma, an important neighbor to China? 

Washington under Trump will pay less attention to Myanmar because it would be difficult for the new president to take up or maintain the good work from his predecessor. There will be a new policy guideline towards Myanmar from the new advisors and there will be less emphasis on democracy and human rights.

One indicator would be the overall attitude of the Trump administration towards Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], of which Myanmar is a member. President Barack Obama has strengthened US-Asean ties during his two terms in office, much to the envy of other dialogue partners. The Philippines, as the current Asean chair, has to convince President Trump to take part in the fourth Asean-US summit in November 2017. With the current state of Philippine-US relations, it is doubtful that he would come to region during his first year in office.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.