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What Trump's triumph means for Southeast Asia

With unpredictable real estate tycoon Donald Trump bound for the White House, Southeast Asian nations could be forced to rethink their relationship with the US

Uncertain times: there is much speculation over what Donald Trump will do as US president

Even before he has announced any firm foreign policy for his administration, Donald Trump’s election as US president has shaken the strategic landscape across Asia. For some of America’s longest-standing allies and closest trading partners, Trump’s accession to the role in January promises a new and uncertain future.

For China, a Trump presidency means it can no longer be sure that its actions in the region will not lead to trade ramifications. Beijing’s calculus for the past 16 years has been that the US was unwilling to go to war to preserve the status quo in Asia and would not use trade as a lever because of ideological reasons. But both candidates in the recent US election campaign took a more protectionist line, with Republican nominee Trump threatening to brand China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on Chinese imports. The shift comes at a particularly difficult time for China: the communist party is grappling with ballooning debt and slowing growth as it tries to shift the economy from an investment-driven model to consumption.

Although China is facing a host of unknowns when it comes to US policy, perhaps the biggest challenges will come for the rest of East Asia. The basis of the US’s contract with Asia has been that it is a reliable long-term partner in regional security, a promise that has in the past been underwritten by both major parties. The region’s confidence in that contract has now been shattered – not just by Trump’s questioning during the campaign of the norms that have governed the relationship, but also by the failure of the political elite to ensure that a strategic iconoclast such as the president-elect never made it to the White House.

Even if the new administration largely maintains the status quo of its Asian relationships, the damage is done. President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia had neither reassured Washington’s allies nor provided tangible benefits that might offset the danger of angering China; post-campaign, both its efficacy and reliability are now highly suspect.

Essentially, if East and Southeast Asian governments lose faith in Washington’s ability to defend them, it will force them to reassess their relationship with China. In Northeast Asia, the uncertainty is going to pose uncomfortable questions for the treaty allies in Japan and South Korea – and in Taiwan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already said that he would like to rewrite the country’s pacifist constitution. Trump has made it clear that he wants Japan and others to bear a greater part of the cost of their own defence, but it is unclear how that will play out in reality.

This points to a less-secure region even if the US does not withdraw under a Trump administration. The military powers in the region – China, Japan and South Korea – are already involved in an arms race, and we can expect this to accelerate as they look to boost their defence.

Nations in Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – are also buying weapons, but the strategic inadvisability of relying on Washington for protection will put more pressure on them to reach a long-term accommodation with China – even if the terms are less than advantageous. To an extent this was already happening before Trump. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was giving clear signals that he believed his country’s interests lie with China as early as July, and more recently Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak paid an unusually high-profile visit to Beijing to buy arms.

Across all of Asia, Trump’s election is feeding elite fears that democracy as a system of governance is fundamentally flawed. The authoritarian tendency that lies barely concealed beneath the surface of many Asian governments is fuelled by fears of demagogues hijacking the body politic. Those fears are being amplified by the liberal voices who once encouraged them to look to the US to see how strong and stable
a democracy could be, but now lament that it has been undone by a billionaire populist with no political experience and a Twitter account.

From an Asian perspective, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” slogan begs the question: which America? If it is the open-hearted nation that has helped this region to pull millions out of poverty, defended free trade and been the enforcer for a global system that protects the rights of smaller and weaker countries, his administration will be welcomed. If it is an exceptionalist state determined to maintain its global supremacy at all costs, Asia will continue to gravitate toward China.

Tim Johnston  is the Asia programme director for the International Crisis Group

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