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perspective

US-Asean ties headed for strategic drift, says Obama’s Asia adviser


Will Asean be forgotten by the administration of President Donald Trump?

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How will the regional grouping fare in the ongoing tussle between America and China?
And how should the region deal with the unpredictability of the Trump administration?
Evan Medeiros, the man who led the Obama administration’s “strategic rebalance” towards Asia, thinks that the region might witness a drift within itself and in ties with Washington. He worries Asean countries will end up having to choose between the US and China, while the pursuit of protectionist policies by the new US administration bodes ill for the region.
“It’s very unclear and I worry about a period of strategic drift within Asean and in the US-Asean relationship, especially if Trump puts TPP to the side,” Medeiros said.
TPP is the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement between 12 countries, including the US but excluding China, which has been under negotiation for five years. Trump has vowed to scrap the deal.
None of the president’s key advisers has “any interest or deep experience in Asia”, except incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who spent time in Singapore and is aware of the South China Sea issue because of ExxonMobil’s investments in Vietnam, Medeiros said. Tillerson is the former CEO of ExxonMobil.
“So, the question is, how much time and energy is Trump going to devote to Asia? He has an opportunity in 2017 because Apec [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit] is going to be in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit is going to be in the Philippines. Will Trump go to one, will he go to both, and what will he take away from those experiences? We don’t know yet.”
The appointment of Professor Peter Navarro to a new role, however, might be interesting, Medeiros said. Navarro, a well-known China critic who wrote the book “Death By China”, will lead the newly created White House National Trade Council and has the task of working on trade policies to shrink America’s trade deficit, expand growth and help stop the exodus of US jobs.

Expect us-china volatility
“Usually, when you give somebody that kind of new role it’s because you want to give them some influence, which is one of the reasons why I think we should all expect some volatility in the US-China relationship in the first year,” Medeiros said.
Trump has already taken a different tack on the Taiwan issue, and said the One China policy is up for negotiation. He is going to be aggressive on trade issues and has already criticised China on its North Korea policy as well. “That’s a lot to take on in the first year,” Medeiros said, adding that the confrontational approach might put countries in the region in difficult, awkward positions and force them to choose between Washington and Beijing.
This is just what the Obama administration had tried to avoid by pushing for a multidimensional trade and investment liberalisation policy under TPP that would have led to more structural reforms and active defence and security arrangements, he added.
It would have meant more cooperation with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, while allowing for a robust relationship with China and Asean autonomy even as it worked with the US.
“I worry we will lose that situation under a Trump administration,” said Medeiros.
It will also mean a shift from all the goodwill earned as part of Obama’s Asia “pivot” policy that saw the US sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with Asean, a US ambassador being designated for the region and stationed in Jakarta, and an Asean leaders meeting in the United States.

Duterte ‘over-cranked’ China shift
Medeiros is not perturbed about the changing nature of US-Philippine ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has shown interest in Manila forging closer ties with Beijing.
Manila might soon do a 180-degree turn on US policy once Trump takes charge, he said.
“I think he [Duterte] recognises that he over-cranked in shifting towards China. The Filipino population is quite pro-US for historic and cultural reasons. I think they are quite sceptical of China, so my expectation is that he will use the opportunity of Trump’s inauguration to do a pivot and re-embrace the US,” he said.
Asia should witness closer ties between Washington and New Delhi while Tokyo has an opportunity to play a leadership role in the region, Medeiros said.
The big worry remains the widening rift with Beijing and he expects tensions with Beijing to persist over the entire tenure of the Trump administration.
“Nobody really debates in the US that China is important to American interests.
“What people debate about is what mix of strategies allows you to shape Chinese behaviour. And I think Trump feels as if China economically is cheating and breaking trade rules and trade laws.
“He wants to take a variety of trade actions to get them to change their practices: Open up their markets, make it more accessible for American companies to invest.”
Medeiros noted: “Trump has a more transactional and unilateral approach and he focuses on what’s good for America.
“This approach will mean that trade and investment will be at the top of the agenda.”
But he added: “Will he follow the path of past governments like the Reagan administration or the Clinton administration in which there’s a deterioration in the first two years as a new president tries to figure out what mix of strategies works with China and then, because it results in so much instability and undermines US interests, that they revert back to a mainstream, more balanced approach?”
Medeiros said: “It’s possible, it’s too early to tell” – adding that Trump is not somebody who is known for compromising or backing down.
However, if protectionist policies mean that the American economy looks weak and poorly managed, it will not be good for US-Asia ties.
“Because fundamentally Asia wants to deal with strong allies, and not just militarily strong ones, but ones that are leading the world in terms of growth, prosperity and fundamentally innovation, which is one of America’s greatest strengths,” he added.
So how should Asia deal with the Trump administration?
“Patience. Give the Trump administration time to get the top policymakers into place, to get them into office and to understand how they look at American interests.
“My second recommendation is: Don’t overreact because it’s going to take him and his administration time to sort out their Asia policy.
“Many of the Trump people are from outside the mainstream Republican establishment.
“Third, engage them as much as possible. See this as an opportunity to teach them and educate them about the importance of Southeast Asia to American interests.
“The arguments for Asean-US ties are very, very compelling but they are not normal and natural, especially for a leader like Trump who doesn’t have a lot of experience in the Asia-Pacific.”

Published : January 19, 2017

By : Shefali Rekhi  The Straits Times Asia News Network