While most Americans were thoroughly immersed in the 2016 presidential campaign to the exclusion of much else, we in Southeast Asia experienced some unexpected perturbations of our own. In October, newly elected President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte visited China. He cut an informal deal that allowed Filipino fishermen to return to their traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS), claimed by Beijing as Chinese territory since “ancient times” and from which these fishermen had been forcibly excluded by Chinese gunboats since 2012. More dramatically to American ears, Duterte also proclaimed the “separation” of the Philippines from the United States, a treaty ally. He added that he would end joint naval patrols with the U.S. Navy and ask U.S. Special Forces to leave the southern Philippines.
Many commentators saw this as presaging a shift by Southeast Asia away from the United States. A Washington Post article of October 31 was headlined “On Duterte’s Heels, Malaysia Is the Next Asian Country to Embrace China.” On November 2 the New York Times concluded “Philippines Deal with China Pokes a Hole in U.S. Strategy.” Ten days earlier, the NYT had predicted that “countries like Vietnam which had been edging closer to the United States, and Malaysia and Thailand, which were moving towards Beijing, may now see the value in drawing closer to China.”
And right on schedule, it seemed, a few days after Duterte left Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited China, where he announced that Malaysia would buy four naval vessels from the Chinese. Malaysia and the Philippines announced that they had concluded deals with China worth $34 billion and $24 billion, respectively.
Soon thereafter, an American friend, an experienced and astute observer of international affairs, emailed me to ask whether my neighborhood was “going to hell in a handbasket.” A reasonable question, but one that missed the essential point of what was going on.
Duterte has an anti-American streak. His penchant for intemperate language devoid of diplomatic nuance is a complication. But he did not give up Philippine claims in the South China Sea, nor did he renounce the principles underlying those claims, which the International Arbitral Tribunal had established in its July 2016 award on the case that Manila had brought against China. The Chinese government had reportedly demanded that Duterte do so as the price for allowing Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal. So he did.
What Duterte said in Japan, which he visited shortly after China, was very different from what he said in Beijing. He described Japan, the principal U.S. ally in East Asia, as a “special friend who is closer than a brother” and said that the Philippines would work closely with Japan on regional issues of common concern. He added that the Philippines would uphold the values of democracy, the rule of law, and peaceful settlement of disputes, including in the South China Sea.
Three days after Donald Trump was elected President, Duterte said he would honor the alliance and defense treaties with the United States and described it as a friend and an ally. Still, he maintained that he wanted to pursue an “independent foreign policy,” build closer ties with other countries, and have all foreign troops out of his country by the end of his term.
This is not a revolutionary point of view. There has always been a tension in Filipino attitudes toward the United States between resentment over the colonial experience and affection and admiration, captured best by a Filipino joke current back in the late 1980s when the U.S. military left Clark Airbase and Subic Bay: “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” The United States has consistently polled as the most trusted country in the Philippines.
Duterte is playing to the schizophrenic quality of Filipino nationalism. He knows that while Philippine claims in the South China Sea and its victory at the Arbitral Tribunal are immensely popular in his country, the Philippines is too small to take on China by itself. The result is a resort to a long-practiced strategy for conducting effective small-power diplomacy.
Southeast Asia lies at the strategic crossroads linking the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Crossroads are always contested and for centuries the countries of the region have lived in the midst of major-power competition. By long and sometimes bitter experience, we have evolved a strategy for dealing with it: using major power competition to advance our own interests and preserving as much autonomy as possible.
To use the jargon of academic international relations theory, in Southeast Asia “balancing,” “hedging,” and “band-wagoning” are not mutually exclusive alternatives. We see no contradiction in pursuing them simultaneously, but this is not always easy. The mix of balancing, hedging, and band-wagoning continually shifts as countries in the region adapt to unpredictable external events over which they have little if any influence.
This is the key to understanding Southeast Asian international relations. When China began to take a more assertive approach to its South China Sea claims after 2010, many Americans believed that this would naturally move Southeast Asia closer to the United States. This did occur, notably in Vietnam and Malaysia, but I warned American friends at the time that this was too mechanical a way to understand the dynamics at play.
Americans, the media in particular, have a tendency to view diplomatic interactions as if they were sporting events where a country must be on one side or another, and where one side wins and the other loses. But stark zero-sum choices were necessary only when Southeast Asia was under colonial rule and during the Cold War, both mere episodes in the long trajectory of the region’s history. Once independence restored the possibility of autonomy, and after the end of the Cold War broadened the parameters for maneuver, the preferred strategy for the countries of Southeast Asia was to maximize autonomy by keeping options open and maintaining the best possible relationship with all the major powers. Recent Philippines and Malaysian diplomatic moves make perfect sense in this Southeast Asian strategic tradition. The U.S. government should not overreact to them. A closer look at recent events across the region, set against the background of a little history, bears this analysis out.
The Philippines has no navy worth the name, and U.S. Special Forces were already drawing down under the previous Filipino administration. Duterte’s announced intentions in these areas were more important symbolically than in actuality. Arguably, the Philippines under the Aquino Administration veered too far in one direction and Duterte was recalibrating, his colorful rhetoric making the changes seem far more dramatic than they are. The administration of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, also maintained good relations with China, as did those of her predecessors, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada.
The Aquino Administration was well with its rights in taking China to the Arbitral Tribunal, but it had not thought through its next move after the award went, as widely expected, in its favor. The U.S. government has made clear that its alliance with Japan covers disputed islands in the East China Sea, but it has been ambiguous about whether its alliance with the Philippines bears similar commitments with regard to the South China Sea. So a recalibration was not unjustified.
Nor is the Philippines the only Southeast Asian nation steering a careful course. Prime Minister Najib said Malaysia would buy Chinese naval vessels. So what? Malaysia has also bought Russian fighters. But the U.S. Navy still calls at Malaysian ports and U.S. surveillance aircraft still fly out of Malaysian airbases.
Indonesia prides itself on its “free and active” non-aligned foreign policy. It has procured Russian fighters, made a special effort to attract Chinese investment and favored China over Japan for a high-speed rail project. But U.S.-Indonesia relations are generally good. Indonesia has arrested Chinese fishing vessels that have ventured into its waters off the Natunas, which the infamous Chinese “nine-dashed lines” overlap, and has proposed conducting joint patrols with Australia, a close U.S. ally.
Singapore has been consistent in its support for the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia over many decades. We are not a treaty ally but have a close defense and security relationship with the United States. This has occasionally led to tensions with China. But we also agreed, at President Xi Jinping’s request, to undertake a project in Chongqing in western China in support of his ambitious vision of a Sinocentric Eurasian order under the framework of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). In 1988 we expelled a U.S. diplomat for interference in our domestic politics and, in 1994, despite an appeal from President Bill Clinton, sentenced an American teenager to corporal punishment for vandalism.
Laos, a close Chinese ally, purged senior officials deemed to be too pro-China at the latest Lao People’s Party Congress held in early 2016, including its long-time Foreign Minister.
Vietnam has a long, complicated, and often troubled relationship with Beijing. But I have never forgotten what a senior Vietnamese official told me when I asked him how leadership changes affected his country’s relations with China. Every Vietnamese leader, he replied, must be able to stand up to China and get along with China, and if anyone thinks this cannot be done at the same time he does not deserve to be the leader.
With variations for national circumstances, what he told me can serve, at least aspirationally, as the template for how Southeast Asian countries generally regard their relationships with major powers. Only Cambodia has explicitly thrown its lot in with China, and even then not unambiguously. Cambodia has the weakest institutions in Southeast Asia, so it remains to be seen how the country will behave when present personalities go the way of all mortal flesh.
If that is what the region looks like from the inside looking out, how do the local actors suppose the U.S. election will affect matters? This matters enormously to us. The United States is a vital and irreplaceable component of the strategic equation in the region. Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President marks a potential discontinuity in U.S. policy. How will a Trump Administration affect Southeast Asian geopolitics? How will the region adapt? How will the new U.S. administration respond to our adaptations? It is particularly important in a time of transition from one administration to another for the United States to read the region right, and for us to read the new Administration right.
To begin with, I doubt if anyone in Beijing is breaking out the Moutai just yet over recent regional events. The conclusion of some American commentators that a Trump Administration would benefit China by frightening U.S. allies away from relying upon it—Foreign Policy, for example, carried an article the day after the election headlined “China just won the US election”—greatly oversimplifies a far more complex reality.
China values predictability. Insofar as Trump’s victory has enhanced global political and economic uncertainties, it has increased the risks for everyone. A Trump Administration will likely be tougher on trade. With the crucial 19th Party Congress less than a year away and social and labor unrest endemic in China, this is an especially bad time for surprises. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has generated a great sense of insecurity among Party cadres, junior and senior alike. In October, about one thousand PLA veterans in uniform protested outside the Ministry of Defense in Beijing. It is impossible for such a large and conspicuous group to have gathered near such a sensitive area without at least the tacit connivance of some senior cadres.
Many commentators believe that that a Trump Administration’s foreign policy will emphasize transaction over principle. Will this make the U.S. government more receptive to Beijing’s “new model of major power relations,” one interpretation of which is the de facto division of East Asia into spheres of influence? I do not think this is likely.
By his own admission, Trump hates to lose. His unprecedented telephone call to Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 has laid down a marker on one of Beijing’s “core interests.” His nominations for the posts of Defense Secretary, CIA Director, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State do not suggest that his administration will meekly leave the field open to a competitor. How can he if he wants to “Make America Great Again”?
Disputes in the South China Sea have become a proxy for U.S.-China competition in all of Southeast Asia. The current situation is a stalemate: the U.S. government cannot make the Chinese dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea; nor can it stop China from deploying military assets on them. But Beijing cannot stop the U.S. Navy from operating under, on, and over the SCS without risking a conflict that China does not want and cannot win. There may be less talk in Washington about the “pivot” or “rebalancing,”1 but I expect no substantive change to the ritualized pattern of patrol and protest that emerged under the Obama Administration.
American engagement in the SCS is irreplaceable. On this issue the ten members of ASEAN2 have maintained a minimal level of cohesion, but are otherwise divided and will remain so. ASEAN works by consensus, and sometimes only a consensus on words or aspirations is realistically possible.3 ASEAN alone cannot stand up to China. U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia play a welcome supporting role but are not a substitute for U.S. power.
Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. contribution to Southeast Asian security may come with a more explicit price tag for the ASEAN countries. At this stage it is difficult to say what will be asked and what will be the response. But it will be difficult to set a price that the region collectively finds acceptable. As an “offshore balancer,” the United States will always find it difficult to get the temperature of its porridge exactly right to suit the tastes of all countries in a diverse region. Some ASEAN members will fear abandonment, even while others fear entanglement. The key ingredient is confidence.
U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia is as much a matter of the region maintaining psychological equilibrium—not losing confidence in the United States—as it is one of maintaining a military equilibrium through naval patrols, surveillance flights, or military bases. China is thus probably happy that the U.S. government will not now proceed with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).4 This is a serious blow to American credibility that reinforces the basic Chinese talking point in Southeast Asia: that the United States is an unreliable partner.
Without the TPP, the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),5 which does not include the United States, will be the only trade liberalization game in the region. But the RCEP is not, as too often carelessly or ignorantly described in the U.S. media, a “Chinese-led” initiative. The RCEP connects the dots between ASEAN’s existing free-trade agreements with the other six RCEP members. Four out of the six—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand—are U.S. treaty allies. A fifth, India, is not a Chinese stooge. These agreements vary widely in their terms. Negotiations have moved at a glacial pace. The chief obstacle is India. Trade liberalization is not high on Prime Minister Modi’s reform agenda. If and when the RCEP is finalized, it will be a lowest common denominator deal.
So to conclude that the TPP’s “defeat” was “an unalloyed triumph for China,” as the NYT did in a November 19 article, is an exaggeration. China’s increasingly important role in the global economy is a fact nobody can ignore, and President Trump may not be interested in regional economic integration. But the U.S. presence is not going to vanish. Even without the TPP, the United States will remain an important economic partner.
Much as he may want to bring jobs back home, Trump cannot entirely stop overseas investment. What drove U.S. jobs overseas was a shift in the structure of the global economy, driven by technological changes that are irreversible and still developing. Those old industrial jobs are gone forever, and it is unclear that infrastructure investment alone, however massive, can create sufficient new jobs. New industries will be needed. And that is why it is premature to completely write off the TPP, which is not just another traditional free-trade agreement of the type that Trump claims has shafted America. At its core, the TPP sets standards for a new generation of industries in which American companies have an advantage. It would not be shocking if a few years from now, with some tweaks and a new name, the agreement became a Trump Administration initiative to put “America First.”
At the same time, the Trump Administration may make it more difficult for American companies to shift operations overseas by changing tax incentives. This has consequences for the next phase of ASEAN economic integration, which aims to make Southeast Asia a common production platform. Meanwhile, that goal has another obstacle: Chinese infrastructure investments under the OBOR framework are binding southwestern China and mainland Southeast Asia into one economic space, changing calculations of interests and straining ASEAN unity.
Further economic integration will make ASEAN less dependent on Beijing’s growing OBOR framework, and thus has important geopolitical as well as economic implications. So too will U.S. efforts to integrate China more securely into the U.S.-led global economic order. If the Trump Administration rethinks U.S. participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—staying out and getting Japan to do so as well were mistakes—and joins China and other countries in investing in OBOR, it would boost American companies, add a positive item to the U.S.-China agenda, and support ASEAN by balancing Chinese influence.
ASEAN does not, however, define “balance” in the Cold War sense of being directed against one major power or another. The preferred Southeast Asian “balance” is the traditional formula: an omnidirectional state of equilibrium between all major powers that allows the countries of the region maximal room to maneuver and autonomy. The essential purpose of ASEAN’s diplomatic engagements with external powers is to promote this omnidirectional “balance.”
This means that a transactional approach in Washington that expects immediate reward for U.S. action will soon grow impatient with the most salient characteristics of ASEAN diplomacy, which stresses form and process: discussion as an end in itself and the incremental accumulation of small steps. Thus, the new administration may put a priority on bilateral relationships. President Trump probably will probably not make a point, as President Obama did, of attending the East Asia Summit or contributing to the elaboration of a new multilateral regional architecture. ASEAN will have to think harder about how its forums and processes can produce tangible outcomes relevant to U.S. interests.
But a transactional approach will also make the Trump Administration less susceptible to China’s favorite tactic of forcing false choices. The second Obama Administration was reluctant to emphasize the competitive aspects of U.S.-China relations for fear of jeopardizing Chinese cooperation on such issues as climate change, reportedly going so far as to forbid the use of the word “competition” to describe relations with China. This was ridiculous and also damaging to U.S. credibility.
Trump clearly knows that China will not cooperate on any issue unless Beijing decides that it is in its own interest to do so. De-emphasizing competition symbolically is not going to make China more cooperative. Since Trump has run his businesses by cooperating with others when it has been to his benefit and ruthlessly competing when competition has been in his interests, he presumably understands this.
On December 5, after China lodged a diplomatic protest against Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwan’s leader, he tweeted a rhetorical question: Had China bothered to seek America’s agreement when building a “massive military complex” in the SCS or “devalu[ing] their currency”? His overture to Taiwan was certainly unorthodox, and if he persists in contacting the Taiwanese directly or in questioning the “One China” policy as President, the situation could become dangerous. But the fundamental point he got across was not unreasonable: If the Chinese government expects the U.S. government to consider its interests, Beijing must in turn consider Washington’s interests.
Southeast Asian elites understand pragmatic realism. It is compatible with our conception of omnidirectional balance. We can work with it. The U.S.-China relationship is multifaceted. Gains for China in one area can be offset in other areas. Southeast Asia will wait to see where the scale ultimately settles before deciding how to position itself, and no positioning will necessarily be final.
Much will depend on the Trump Administration’s strategy, which has yet to be clearly defined. One persistent theme of U.S. foreign policy has been at least to some degree to premise U.S. strategy on compatibility of values. A transactional Trump Administration is unlikely to emphasize this aspect of U.S. diplomatic culture. Although the U.S. foreign policy establishment and media may be uncomfortable with an approach that de-emphasizes values, it is not a liability in Southeast Asia.
Too often, particularly after the Cold War, Americans have seemed to believe that they had a monopoly on legitimate politics. Most of Southeast Asia’s political systems, even the formally democratic ones, will never sit easily with American political values. Foreign policy always and everywhere depends on domestic politics. Insisting that American values take precedence over domestic considerations only complicates relationships and drives countries to look for alternatives.
Hence, U.S. criticism of Thailand’s 2014 military coup caused the junta to lean toward China. One could argue that this was an overreaction—if you stage a coup you should not expect praise from Washington—or that the Thai military’s goals were unrealistic and unsustainable. But Bangkok’s tilt toward China cannot be dismissed as illogical.
Similarly, Vietnam and Laos will not abandon their Leninist systems just because many Americans find them abhorrent. Even an icon of democracy like Aung San Suu Kyi has come under increasingly severe criticism for her failure to protect the Rohingyas from military abuses. But her attitudes toward the Rohingyas and Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities are not very different from those of the Myanmar military and most Burmans, the dominant ethnic group. The practical politician she is becoming cannot ignore a still-powerful interest group, let alone majority sensibilities.
In a December 2 article the NYT depicted President-elect Trump’s invitation of Duterte to the White House as an endorsement of the latter’s violent anti-drug campaign, “upsetting decades of diplomacy.” But however offensive to American values, the anti-drug campaign is popular in the Philippines. Arguably, engagement will not render U.S. diplomacy less effective in curbing extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. It was already evident during Obama’s watch that moralistic pressures only hardened Duterte’s position. And why was it wrong to invite the next Chairman of ASEAN to visit the United States?
As everyone save for some Americans knows, the United States has been inconsistent in the application of its values. After 9/11 the U.S. government, preoccupied with counter-terrorism, held up Malaysia and Indonesia as models of Islamic “democracies.” In doing so, it turned a blind eye to or downplayed the “Arabization” of Islam in these Muslim-majority nations, which included the narrowing of political and social space for non-Muslims in Malaysia, and occasional episodes of violence against Christians and Muslims deemed to be deviant in Indonesia. In truth, both countries are far from being Western-style democracies. Yet I do not recall any but the most muted criticism when Obama visited these countries or when their leaders were received in the White House.
It is obviously too early to tell what the ultimate effects of the Trump Administration will be in Southeast Asia. But trade policy apart, it seems that much of the criticism leveled against the President-elect so far reveals as much or more about his critics and their assumptions as it does about Trump. Better for a new Administration to start with no assumptions than continue with the existing flawed ones.
1More U.S. attention to East Asia is to be welcomed. But the metaphor of the “pivot” or “rebalance” gives the wrong impression, as what “pivots” or “rebalances” one way could easily swing another. This evokes the very image of an inconstant United States that China continually propounds. What should have been stressed instead is the essential continuity of U.S. policy in East Asia over the past forty years or more. Furthermore, a global power will always have other preoccupations, and the metaphor sets up expectations that are bound to be disappointed. It is no bad thing if this metaphor is abandoned.
2ASEAN’s ten members are Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
3To the still largely Eurocentric U.S. foreign policy establishment, regional organization is most readily mentally equated—often unconsciously—with the EU. This is misleading. Unlike the EU, ASEAN has no supra-national delusions. ASEAN is an inter-state organization in a very diverse region. It therefore must work by reconciling sovereign interests through consensus and, despite the Charter that came into force in 2008, largely informally. Any other mode of decision-making risks escalating small differences into major splits, with unpredictable consequences for a region where order and civility in relations cannot yet be taken for granted. The corollary to consensus is non-interference in the internal affairs of members. The basic consensus on which ASEAN rests is a consensus on always having a consensus even if it is only of form or on aspirations we know are only just that. Better to agree on words or to avert our eyes from the disagreeable, because who knows where open disagreement may lead us?
4The TPP consists of the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Peru, Mexico, Canada, and Chile. All the Asian members of the TPP plus Australia and New Zealand are also in the RCEP.
5The RCEP consists of the ten ASEAN members, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.