“The US National Security Strategy Sheds Light on how the US Views Southeast Asia” by Jason Salim

2017/72, 21 December 2017

The National Security Strategy as unveiled by US President Donald Trump on 18 December 2017 is the first cogent iteration of his foreign policy agenda since taking office in January this year. Transcending beyond President Trump’s speeches and Twitter comments as well as the often-conflicting remarks made by his principal officials, this formal document – which is legally required of all US presidents – sheds light on the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and national security priorities, especially to Southeast Asia.

In the 68-page document, President Trump made it clear that China would figure heavily in his Administration’s key foreign policy goals. However, it is now clear that the warm personal relations between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has had little impact on the prevailing worldview of China in Washington. The document lumped China together with Russia as one of the bigger existential threats to the US’ place in the world, calling the two countries out for wanting “to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” and characterising China specifically as “(seeking) to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region … and reorder the region in its favour.” It went on to criticise China for “(expanding) its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others,” indirectly disparaging the Belt and Road Initiative by saying that “the US provides an alternative to state-directed investments which often leave developing countries worse off.” If we are to judge the state of bilateral relations by this document alone, the US and China are far away from coming to a mutual understanding of each other’s place in their shared geopolitical space, which comes to a head in Southeast Asia.

The Indo-Pacific concept as expounded by President Trump is fleshed out in greater detail in this document. By drawing clear lines on where this geopolitical construct begins and ends – “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the US” – we can now understand the worldview of the administration as it takes its first concrete steps towards implementing its Asia policy. Even as the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula takes first precedence above all other foreseeable challenges, the Philippines and Thailand “remain important allies and markets,” and Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are described as “growing security and economic partners of the US.” The US also recognised both ASEAN and APEC as “centrepieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture.”

However, it is disconcerting to note that direct references to Southeast Asia in its priority actions for the Indo-Pacific region comes only in the military and security section, which highlighted the US’ desire to “improve law enforcement, defence and intelligence cooperation with Southeast Asian partners to address the growing terrorist threat” and “re-energise alliances with the Philippines and Thailand and strengthen our partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and other to help them become cooperative maritime partners.” If this is the case, we can expect the South China Sea to remain the sticking point in relations between the US and China for the foreseeable future.

The positioning of Southeast Asia throughout this document hints at the US’ acknowledgement that the region is already a battleground for competition between American and Chinese influence, and that its presence in the region is a matter of national interest. Beyond this document, these priority actions would have to be translated into initiatives that will reassure the region of the US’ continued presence in the region as we sail into choppy geopolitical waters.
Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Assistant Production Editor of ASEANFocus.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.