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A Possible Trump Presidency: Impact On US-ASEAN Ties

Several ASEAN nations have expressed concern regarding the deterioration of China-US ties in recent years. Countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia which share robust economic ties with both Beijing and Washington have reiterated that they would not like to take sides, given their geographical location and robust economic ties of ASEAN nations with both Washington and Beijing. Malaysian PM, Anwar Ibrahim, known for his pro-west leanings in the past while speaking in a press conference on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference being held at Melbourne (Australia), referring to Malaysia’s ties with the US and China: “So while we remain an important friend to the United States and Europe and here in Australia, they should not preclude us from being friendly to one of our important neighbours, precisely China”

While ASEAN nations have expressed concern regarding China’s policy towards the region, especially on the South China Sea issue —  they have been careful not to criticise China, lest Beijing get offended.

The only country, other than Vietnam, which has been vocal in its criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea has been the Philippines.

Current Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, unlike his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, has been unequivocal in his criticism of China on the South China Sea issue. While commenting on the collision between the Philippines and a Chinese ship in the South China Sea, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said: “We worry in the Philippines because it could come from, not a strategic decision by anyone saying, ‘OK, we’re going to war,’ but just by some servicemen making a mistake, or some action that’s misunderstood”

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While speaking at a think-tank he also said: “The Philippines begins any conversation regarding great power competition with a strong rejection of any subordination of our distinct national interest and denial of our sovereignty and strategic agency”

US approach towards ASEAN

The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was criticised by Singapore one of the signatories to the TPP. Despite the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) and several visits by senior US officials of the Biden Administration to ASEAN countries in recent years, there has also been a belief that due to other foreign policy priorities, the US has reduced its involvement in the region. While ASEAN has framed its Indo-Pacific strategy, most countries have made it clear that their vision for FOIP may share some commonalities with the US version, but would not be centred around China. Though ASEAN countries have signed up for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) there have been complaints about it lacking any clear vision for addressing trade concerns of ASEAN nations. On the other hand, not only has trade between China and ASEAN risen significantly over the past decade, but Chinese investment under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has also increased.

Trump and ASEAN

ASEAN nations would also be watching the US Presidential election, since a Trump Presidency, which seems to be a high probability, could result in Washington re-orienting its approach towards the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN. Trump has already criticised the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity dubbing it Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) 2 and said that the US would pull out in case he became President.

The other important point is that while the Biden Administration has taken a tough stance on economic issues vis-à-vis China it has continued engagement with Beijing, and this has introduced a modicum of predictability which has been welcomed by ASEAN. At a time, when several ASEAN economies have been impacted by global uncertainty and an inward-looking US, a further escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing would not be good news.

Here it would be important to highlight a few points. First, Trump made his first reference to the ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ (FOIP) during an address at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit at Danang (Vietnam) in 2017. Trump Said: “Today, I am here to offer a renewed partnership with America to work together to strengthen the bonds of friendship and commerce between all of the nations of the Indo-Pacific, and together, to promote our prosperity and security”.

In conclusion, while it is true that the US approach towards certain issues has not been significantly different from that of Trump, the former has been less transactional. It remains to be seen if Trump would adopt a different approach to key global issues and be more accommodating of the legitimate concerns of partners if he were to win in 2024.

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About the author

Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is faculty member of OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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