2018/28, 19 March 2018
When Rex Tillerson was appointed as Secretary of State in the early days of President Trump’s administration, talking heads were confident that the former Exxon CEO would smoothen some of President Trump’s rough edges and leverage on his experiences as CEO of one of the world’s largest multinational corporations to provide some stability to US foreign policy. The sudden but not entirely unexpected termination of his appointment, or “Rexit”, has only served to compound existing uncertainties towards the US’ yet-to-be-defined Asia policy.
Rex Tillerson’s one year and two months tenure as Secretary of State saw ASEAN-US engagement grow warmer. He attended all the meetings where his attendance was expected. In May 2017, only four months into President Trump’s inauguration, he invited ASEAN’s foreign ministers to Washington DC for a special meeting. These initiatives, in addition to US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat, and President Trump’s attendance at the ASEAN-US Summit, gave hope that ASEAN-US relations would remain stable.
However, Tillerson lacked the one thing he absolutely needed to project credibility, and that was the ear of the President. Tillerson’s efforts were always undermined by the President’s Twitter diplomacy, and even his dismissal was uncermoniously announced on Twitter. With Tillerson’s departure, the State Department’s personnel issues becomes more acute. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who is the the point person for ASEAN matters, and the ambassadors to Singapore and ASEAN have all yet to be appointed. ASEAN and its Dialogue Partners are left wondering who their US opposite numbers will be at high-level meetings such as the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and who would represent the US at a senior level to explain the Indo-Pacific strategy announced by President Trump in Da Nang in November 2017.
As CIA Director Mike Pompeo prepares to step up and assume the helm at Foggy Bottom, Southeast Asia will trade Tillerson for a man who, although lacking in experience with Asia, has developed a close personal and working relationship with President Trump. Judging by Pompeo’s prior public statements – determining that China “has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to America … over the medium and long term” – his nomination could possibly signal President Trump’s turn towards a more hawkish stance and intensified desire to put “America first”. Furthermore, Pompeo’s echoing of President Trump’s hardline views on North Korea confirms the long-held fears within ASEAN and the rest of Asia that the Korean Peninsula will continue to suck all the oxygen in the US’ engagement with Asia. However, Pompeo would still have to undergo bruising confirmation hearings in the US Senate, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has vowed to block his appointment, which means the US may be without its most senior diplomat longer than expected.
As the State Department prepares itself yet again for a new man at the helm, the US Department of Defense’s role can only grow more prominent. It was Defense Secretary James Mattis who gave the world a first glimpse of the Trump Administration’s Asia policy during his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year. With Mattis’ participation in this year’s conference as well as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus in October, the US’ diplomatic efforts in this part of the world is essentially fronted by the DOD. Until the State Department’s personnel issues are resolved, the US’ presence in this region would be most visible through defence diplomacy.
If and when Pompeo is confirmed, ASEAN would have to re-acquaint itself to a new point person on US foreign relations. Even with uncertainties on trade as well as events in the Korean Peninsula, the hope remains that the US’ engagement with ASEAN will continue unabated on the same trajectory as the past year. The region will look at the US’ next steps with bated breath.
Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN-Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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