WASHINGTON, D.C. – Later this week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make his first trip to Southeast Asia since his confirmation to the position under U.S. President Donald Trump. Though the main purpose of the visit will be to attend his first round of annual Asian summitry in the Philippines, he will also be looking to advance key priorities of the Trump administration with key allies and partners with stops in Thailand and Malaysia amid lingering anxieties in the region (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
While Tillerson will no doubt seek to make progress the Trump administration’s top priorities, at the outset it is important to recognize that in engaging regional interlocutors, he, like other top officials, is likely to face a barrage of questions about the administration’s approach to Asia and the wider world. As I have noted repeatedly, including during my attendance at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, there is a high level of anxiety in the subregion about the lack of coherence in Asia policy, including some related to how long Tillerson and others like U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will remain in their current jobs (See: “The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy”).
In terms of the official agenda, the main event in Tillerson’s trip, which will last from August 5 to 9, will be his attendance at his first-ever round of Asian summitry. At these meetings, most notably the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Tillerson can be expected to emphasize Asian security issues that are of utmost concern to the Trump administration. North Korea will no doubt be a central concern (See: “Why Was a North Korean Official in the Philippines Before the ASEAN Regional Forum?”). But other issues, such as the Islamic State and the South China Sea, will also feature as well.
Apart from advancing that narrow agenda, Tillerson will also be exposed to a wide array of other issues in a multilateral setting by attending other meetings. For instance, this year’s U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial carries special significance since it is the 50th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations. This will also be an opportunity to make further progress on the long list of priorities that were initially set out in the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership inked under the Obama administration back in 2015, some of which have continued to be discussed under Trump, including at the Special US-ASEAN Meeting in May (See: “The Real Challenge for US-ASEAN Relations Under Trump”).
Issue-specific meetings, such as the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) Ministerial – the product of the Barack Obama years – also offer additional opportunities for the administration to begin to build out a wider multilateral beyond the specific U.S. interests it has been focused on thus far. Aside from these meetings, Tillerson will also have additional opportunities for sideline meetings as well with officials of allied and partner countries.
Tillerson’s trip also presents an opportunity for the Trump administration to expand its engagement with key bilateral allies and partners in the subregion that are important to the advancement of U.S. interests. Tillerson’s stop in the Philippines, which will be hosting these meetings as ASEAN chair, is especially significant not just because Manila is an agenda setter this year, but also because it is a U.S. treaty ally that is a claimant in the South China Sea disputes and the center of efforts by the Islamic State to expand its influence into Southeast Asia.
Though Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to rebalance his country’s alignments away from overdependence on Washington and towards a broader set of relationships including with Beijing and Moscow, Duterte’s administration and Duterte himself recognize the convergence of interests on issues such as counterterrorism as well as the deep institutional links between the two countries (See: “Recalibrating US-Philippine Alliance Under Duterte”).
Tillerson will also have an opportunity to build out ties ahead of an anticipated summit meeting between Duterte and Trump later this year should the U.S. president follow through on his pledge to attend ASEAN and APEC meetings (See: “Why Trump Must Go to ASEAN and APEC in the Philippines and Vietnam”).
Tillerson will also make a stop in Thailand, Washington’s other treaty ally in Southeast Asia. Though ties had initially grown frostier following the coup and the rise of a junta-led government in May 2014, they have since been on the uptick (See: “Exclusive: Managing a US-Thailand Alliance Under Strain”). This is in no small part due to Washington’s realization about both Bangkok’s importance to the advancement of U.S. interests in the region as well as the enduring challenges the Thai government faces in sorting out the country’s domestic politics.
While a summit meeting between Trump and junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha did not take place last month, both sides did hold the sixth iteration of the U.S.-Thailand Strategic Dialogue, an indicator of the continuation of a slow normalization of ties in the post-coup period already ongoing toward the end of the Obama administration (See: “A US-Thailand Alliance Boost Under Trump and Prayut?”). The two countries have made some progress in a few areas of their relationship, most notably the defense realm, even though some significant differences remain.
Tillerson will also make a stop in Malaysia to round out the ASEAN trip. U.S.-Malaysia relations had initially warmed appreciably under the Obama administration, with the two sides elevating ties to the level of a comprehensive partnership during Obama’s visit to Malaysia, the first in a half-century. But recent developments, such as the opening of an investigation into an ongoing corruption scandal implicating Prime Minister Najib Razak as well as Kuala Lumpur’s perceived tilt towards China, have cast a pall on a relationship that still remains important for Washington and functional at the working level (See: “Malaysia is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit”).
Though Malaysia is not a treaty ally, as a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, one of just two countries that is part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition on the Islamic State, and a country that has been directly affected by recent North Korean provocations, the Trump administration no doubt recognizes that it is important to engage Kuala Lumpur as it builds out its Asia policy.