WASHINGTON, D.C. – The arrival of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Washington, D.C. this week capped off what has been a solid month for the Donald Trump administration’s early outreach to the subregion. From U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s inclusion of Indonesia in his Asia tour last month to Trump’s own commitment to attend the next round of Asian summitry later this year, it has been a pretty good start. But while this spurt of high-level engagement is welcome, the real challenge now for Trump and his team is to take decisive steps to ease deeper anxieties about U.S. foreign policy and America’s approach to the region.
Though ASEAN states have become used to variations in U.S. commitment over the decades, it is difficult to recall when there have been so many questions about different aspects of the U.S. role and policies all at the same time, from the protectionist turn on trade to the downgrading of human rights; from wild swings on China policy to mixed signals in the Middle East. Some of this is fear bordering on paranoia, such as whether Trumpian transactionalism means a deal at others’ expense is right around the corner. But the more fundamental worry for the subregion is that a narrow, threat-oriented “America First” prism focused on terrorism and China will once again lead to missed opportunities in the economic realm, restrictions on their alignments, or even other U.S. quagmires in the Middle East, as it has under previous administrations (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
To be sure, the initial high-level engagement of Southeast Asia under the Trump administration has helped a bit in this regard. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with ambassadors and charge d’affaires in March provided them with some reassurance about the U.S. role after some worrying signals with the nixing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the initial questioning of the “One China” policy, and the imposition of the Trump travel ban. Pence’s trip to Indonesia and the U.S.-ASEAN meetings here this week both helped reinforce the message that Washington would continue to devote attention not just to Southeast Asia, but ASEAN as well (See: “Why Trump Should Go to APEC and EAS in Vietnam and the Philippines”). That is an important signal to send now, given that this is both the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding and the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations.
Yet easing these deep anxieties will also require following up this talk with action domestically, globally, regionally, and subregionally in the coming months. Domestically, given the slow pace of staffing and the fierce battles among various institutions and individuals, the chief task is to convey clarity and ensure coordination with respect to U.S. policy as Southeast Asian states engage the United States. Some of this will sort itself out; few would have predicted either the fall of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn or the sidelining of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon at the outset. But other aspects require tending, most notably the administration’s ties with Congress, which plays a key role in the evolution of U.S. alliances and partnerships. The introduction of a bill on Thursday in the U.S. Congress restricting defense equipment to Philippine police amid the U.S.-ASEAN engagements was a useful reminder of this, especially given the administration’s low level of interest in human rights thus far (See: “The US-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era: A Path to Recalibration”).
Clarity at home needs to be matched by coherence abroad. For all the chest-thumping by some in Washington after the Syrian strike and “mother of all bombs” strike in Afghanistan last month, such events only compounded Southeast Asian fears that with the United States facing a complex set of international threats simultaneously, it may once again become embroiled in quagmire in another region that may take the focus away from Asia. That is partly due to the fact that the administration has not set out a clear strategy that suggests it will continue to prioritize Asia (and Southeast Asia) in recognition of the region’s centrality to U.S. interests even as it continues to address concerns in other parts of the world as any global superpower does, which was the crux of Barack Obama’s rebalance. Though the Trump administration may not want to adopt the rebalance term itself, it must embody its spirit and ensure that its America First vision does not come at the expense of an Asia First foreign policy (See: “What Will Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”).
Getting ASEAN right requires getting the fundamentals of Asia policy right. Chief among these is finding the right balance in U.S.-China relations, since this will play into how Southeast Asian states will determine their own approach to Beijing. Wild swings on China policy need to give way to a steadier calibration of engagement and balancing, done in concert with Washington’s allies and partners where possible. That will help both quell fears about prioritization (like a U.S.-China deal on North Korea at the expense of the South China Sea) while also strengthening the administration’s hand to stiffen the spine of wobblier Southeast Asian states like the Philippines about how to jointly deal with a rising China (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”).
As for U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, the key is ensuring that the administration’s approach to the region is well-diversified rather than too narrow. That means keeping threat perceptions with respect to terrorism, China, or North Korea in check, lest they diminish support for the United States among Southeast Asia’s citizens or overly restrict the alignment options of its policymakers. It also requires building out some of the non-military areas of U.S. policy, most clearly on the economic side with TPP’s demise, but also diplomatically with the devastating budget cuts at the State Department, which has led important (and sometimes popular) programs in Southeast Asia from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) to the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).
The Trump administration has shown so far that it can in fact clear the basic bar of engaging Southeast Asia and ASEAN – a possibility that naysayers had dismissed far too easily much too early. But its true test will be whether it can address the more fundamental questions that Southeast Asia is asking about U.S. commitment and American policies. Even as we acknowledge what has been an active month of diplomacy in U.S. Southeast Asia policy, that is worth keeping in mind.