Friday, 30 June 2017 — The Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a public seminar entitled “The Trump Administration and Southeast Asia: The First 10%”. The panel consisted of three speakers: Mr. Walter Lohman, Director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.; Professor Joseph Liow, Dean of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and Dr. Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute who also chaired the panel. The event was attended by over 80 people, including diplomats, academics and students from local and international educational institutions, and members of the press and public.
The seminar was chaired by Dr Dr. Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr. Storey began the event by noting both continuity and change from the Obama to the Trump administrations. The main continuities included America’s vast military presence in Asia — and the Trump administration’s commitment to both modernize the U.S. armed forces and deploy most of its assets to the region — as well as its vast economic interests in the region. Trump’s policy over the South China Sea is also unchanged from the previous administration. The most important change has been Trump’s withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which had been the central economic “plank” of the Obama administration’s pivot or rebalance to Asia. Dr. Storey went on to note that in its early months, the new administration’s relations with Asia were focused almost entirely on Northeast Asia and the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. This only began to change in late April when Vice President Mike Pence visited Indonesia, Trump spoke on the phone with several Southeast Asian leaders, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with all ten ASEAN foreign ministers in Washington. Dr. Storey went on to note that public perceptions of President Trump and the U.S. remain mixed, as revealed by the recent survey released by the Pew Research Center.
Dr. Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute giving his comments (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
In his comments, Mr. Lohman examined three aspects of America’s Asia policy under Trump so far: the military situation, which in his opinion was largely positive given Trump’s commitment to modernize the U.S. armed forces; diplomacy, which presented a mixed picture given the ups and downs in U.S. relations with Japan, South Korea and especially China; and trade which is much less positive than the other two because of Trump’s opposition to free trade agreements. On Southeast Asia, Mr. Lohman noted that the Obama era of ‘hyper-engagement’ with the region and ASEAN was over and that the Trump administration’s approach to Southeast Asia would be more akin to that of President George W. Bush. He also opined that the Trump administration would likely be distracted by the North Korean issue. On a positive note, Mr. Lohman pointed to Trump’s early commitment to attend the East Asia and APEC summits in November as a positive sign.
Mr. Walter Lohman, Director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Professor Liow stated that U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia was reverting to the norm and that this highlighted how exceptional the Obama administration’s approach to the region had been — Southeast Asians should reconcile themselves to this fact. He then went to posit three key issues that should be kept in mind when considering U.S. politics and the new administration’s foreign policy: first, that America remained a divided society after the election and would remain preoccupied by domestic issues; second, that the Trump administration did not have a clear sense of how, or whether, it would wield global leadership; and third, that policymaking would remain slow so long as the administration remained understaffed. For Southeast Asia this posed two scenarios: that Trump would recast relations with the region based on his campaign rhetoric; or that U.S. policy would fall back to familiar patterns. Professor Liow contended that the Trump administration could be expected to be unpredictable, and that deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China could pose problems for Southeast Asia.
Professor Joseph Liow, Dean of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
During the question and answer session members of the audience asked the three speakers about what regional states could expect from the EAS/APEC Summits, how they could facilitate better relations between the U.S. and China, whether America’s withdrawal from the TPP would impact the U.S. business community’s approach to the region and the prospects for U.S.-India relations.