Speculation has been wild and crazy about the incoming US administration’s policy and overall take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards Asean. The reason is quite simple. Asean has been one of the most successful foreign policy areas under outgoing President Barack Obama, thanks to the solid foundation laid by the second George W Bush administration.
Obama was able to build on a remarkable relationship with Asean. If Trump wants to tamper with his predecessor’s diplomatic legacies, he’ll need to be a 10-wheel truck to flatten a whole range of achievements under the Obama leadership. Next year, both sides will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their relationship.
Whichever future policy the new US president wants to pursue, Trump has to be mindful of the unique characteristics of Asean-US ties.
Here are six reasons why he has to pay attention to Asean:
First, Trump should know that Asean economies have created half a million jobs – 500,000 – for the American people in goods and
services. This figure is not imaginary as it comes from the White House’s website. In just the next few weeks, a few dozen more jobs will be added to the US economy with newly set up Thai restaurants around the US, especially in New York, by Thai
entrepreneurs during the transition period. Other Asean entrepreneurs are also investing in America.
Any drastic change in US policy towards Asean would inevitably reduce US employment, something Trump must avoid at all costs.
US official documents similarly reveal that Asean is the US’s fourth-largest trading partner, with steady GDP growth over the past 15 years. Last year, trade in goods expanded 55 per cent and now reaches US$226 billion (Bt8.04 trillion). US companies are the biggest investors in Asean. If the US-led premium free trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), should pass through Congress, the two-way trade and investment would increase many times over. Trump had better think twice.
Second, Asean is a community of 635 million people and growing, not only in terms of its young population but also in rising income among the so-called consumer class. More than 63 per cent are under the age of 35.
It is dynamic and outward looking. Trump should be reminded that the Asean population is two times bigger than the US. It is also larger than the 520 million in the EU. So far, no Asean member plans to leave the grouping in the foreseeable future. In fact, Asean will add one or two more members in years to come.
Although the average income of the entire Asean region still cannot match the EU, the overall figure is rising. Incidentally, Singapore has a higher annual income than all EU members with the exception of Luxembourg. According to Forbes magazine, Singapore is the world’s third richest country with an average per capital annual income of $56,700. The island-nation was the first to urge the US to ratify the TPP as its failure would damage American creditability.
Third, Obama has strengthened Asean-US relations to a new unprecedented level. Thanks to his childhood in Indonesia, he was at ease with Asean leaders, meeting them 11 times and visiting the region seven times during his presidency. The Sunnylands special summit in February was testimony to their amity as they agreed to hold talks promptly without intervention from their senior officials – much to the chagrin of China and Russia, which took several months to plan their summits early this year.
This kind of camaraderie among the leaders of Asean and their US dialogue partner is extremely rare.
It would be wise for Trump to continue this high level of engagement and retain the rebalancing policy towards Asia. A stable and prosperous Asean can serve as a strategic partner to the US in all areas, especially in cyber security, maritime security and global health. The only previous leader who had established a similar rapport with Asean was former Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda when he initiated the “hearts to hearts” dialogue with Asean leaders amid the anti-Japanese sentiment of the 1970s.
Fourth, despite the toxic presidential campaign this year, there are still 100,000 followers of Asean, ranging in age from 18 to 35, who are inspired by the democratic system practised in the US. Obama came up with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiatives (YSEALI) to network youngsters from the 10 member countries with the Americans. It is now the most successful youth programme between Asean and a dialogue partner. Trump, who is a good orator in his own right, would find the YSEALI a great forum for him to get to know the Asean younger generation better. It would be a huge loss if he disowned the YSEALI just because it was Obama’s brainchild. After all, Obama was the most famous presenter of America’s soft power.
Fifth, after the tragic incidents at New York’s World Trade Center in September 2001 and the Bali attack in October 2002, both the US and Southeast Asia encountered a common challenge – the international terrorism threat. Then the region was immediately labelled as a second front for terrorism. Now 15 years have elapsed, the region has registered some of the world’s most dynamic economic growth, especially among the new Asean members. In response to the much-needed intra-Asean cooperation on terrorism, the Asean leaders signed the Convention for Counter Terrorism in 2007 after 90 days of consultation.
With Trump’s strong anti-terrorism platform, he could learn some good practices from the region, where the world’s largest Muslim population lives. Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, along with super-modern Malaysia have practised secular Islam all along. Within the region, some de-radicalisation programmes initiated by Singapore have been emulated in Indonesia and elsewhere.
Sixth, after the US presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017, Trump – the Rodrigo Duterte of the West – will receive an invitation from the real Duterte from Davao, as the Asean chair, to attend two important summits – the fourth Asean-US Summit and the 11th East Asia Summit (EAS) in November 2017. If he decides not to come because it would not be “a good deal” to travel so far, the
new president would miss a great opportunity to get to know the “real” leaders of Asean.
The Asean-US summit is the forum where they can raise issues of their concerns – and disagreements.
For the upcoming EAS, without Trump the US would lose its voice in the leaders-only security forum. After the US and Russia were inducted into the EAS in 2011, Obama did very well to raise the US profile in the region and managed to bring key strategic issues to the EAS agenda. Indeed, the US has persuaded Asean leaders to shape a new agenda with more strategic issues.