Southeast Asia Worries About Chance of Hawkish New Trump Washington gnewsplus24

There is an increasingly real possibility of a second Trump administration entering office in January 2025. Southeast Asia is better prepared this time around than it was in 2016. Regional leaders are not panicking about the former U.S. leader potentially returning to office.

Most learned to live with President Donald Trump 1.0 despite occasional challenges, particularly the former president’s proclivity for singling out individual countries such as Vietnam for perceived trade imbalances, even as many Vietnamese favored his team’s full-throated condemnation of Chinese actions.

Autocrats appreciated the free pass during the Trump years, a departure from Washington’s usual lectures or sanctions over human rights abuses and democratic erosion. Trump welcomed then-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand to the White House and praised then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal handling of the drug war in the Philippines.

For the majority of observers in Southeast Asia, the throughline across U.S. presidential administrations is ambivalence and inattention rather than any specific policy actions causing alarm. The proliferation of “minilateral” initiatives involving small groups of countries—such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia-Philippines “Squad” and AUKUS (Australia, the U.K., and U.S.)—suggests that the region’s institutional architecture may be strong enough to withstand the forces of unilateralism and potential chaos of an “America First” foreign policy.

The Biden administration deserves credit for strengthening alliance coordination and Washington’s network of strategic partnerships across the Indo-Pacific—responding to the demand for greater U.S. engagement and a sustained security presence from the region. For instance, the U.S.-Philippines alliance has seen remarkable progress since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. came to power in 2022, with four new bases added to the list of sites that the U.S. military can access as agreed in a 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

This trend reflects the strong strategic convergence between Washington and Manila as well as shared concern about China’s provocative behavior in the South China Sea and use of gray-zone coercion against Filipino personnel aboard civilian vessels. In mid-June, a Chinese boat collided with a Philippine civilian vessel attempting to resupply a marine outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines maintains a rusting, grounded vessel called the BRP Sierra Madre. A Filipino sailor reportedly suffered “severe injuries” as a result of the collision.

Marcos recently warned in a speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that if such acts of aggression by the Chinese coast guard led to the death of a Filipino citizen, it could be interpreted as an act of war and would “almost certainly” be a red line for his government.

As a result, Manila and Washington have increased collaboration on maritime domain awareness and expanded dialogues to include like-minded countries such as Australia and Japan. In April, the Biden administration hosted the first-ever leader summit with Japan and the Philippines in Washington. President Joe Biden also traveled to Hanoi to conclude a long-anticipated comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam in September 2023.

However, U.S. influence has declined in recent years as a result of the Biden team’s failure to advance a meaningful economic strategy following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. While the United States retains significant military power in the region, the lack of a cohesive economic policy undermines Washington’s goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and facilitates Beijing’s narrative that the U.S. presence is a destabilizing external force.

Despite the Biden administration’s efforts to “Trump-proof” U.S. foreign policy, there is a real possibility that Southeast Asia’s hedging against uncertainty associated with U.S. inattention—or an aggressive and unilateral foreign policy—could lead to path dependency, whereby the region tilts further away from Washington and toward Beijing. A much-cited survey of regional opinions conducted by the ASEAN Study Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute recently found that a slim majority of Southeast Asian respondents said that they would side with Beijing if forced to choose between the United States and China. Four more years of Trump could shift that dial further.

Without sustained engagement from the United States, which is already sitting out the economic competition by choosing to boycott multilateral trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Southeast Asia will increasingly gravitate toward China, already the undisputed regional economic hegemon. As populism and state-led industrial policies come to dominate U.S. politics, Washington has failed to provide credible alternatives to Beijing’s growth model.

A second Trump administration would guarantee the continuation of shortsighted statist economic policy and the return of sweeping tariffs against other countries to protect domestic industry. At the same time, partisan rivalry ensures that Trump would seek to outdo Biden with ever more hawkish measures toward China. This increasingly confrontational approach alienates the majority of Southeast Asian partners, who view Beijing as an integral player in the region’s future despite its controversial behavior in the South China Sea and unwanted use of economic coercion to achieve strategic ends.

Southeast Asian states will deepen hedging strategies to ride out this period of geopolitical turbulence. According to the most recent ISEAS survey, nearly 60 percent of Southeast Asian respondents identify China as the most influential economic power in the region. Several are likely already preparing for a possible future where China’s power and U.S. neglect are more certain.

In a signal of pragmatism and likely continuity with former Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s cultivation of close economic ties with Beijing, Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto chose China for his first trip abroad following the election. During his visit, Prabowo also referred to China as a key defense partner and expressed interest in learning from China’s governance model.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has criticized Western efforts to impede China’s rise and downplayed his country’s maritime disputes with China. On a trip to Beijing in 2023, Anwar said that Beijing had pledged nearly $39 billion in new investments, a tried-and-true method for brokering goodwill in Southeast Asian states with whom China has territorial disputes.

Despite recent engagement between the United States and Thailand, a U.S. ally—including a U.S.-Thailand Strategic and Defense Dialogue—the alliance remains adrift. Bangkok does not share Washington’s perceptions of China as the principal threat to regional security, and it has drifted further from electoral democracy with successive coups in 2006 and 2014.

Nevertheless, the Royal Thai Air Force is reportedly considering acquiring U.S. F-16 fighter jets to replace its aging fleet, and Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin conveyed his desire to make the United States Thailand’s largest foreign investor in talks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in March. The Pheu Thai Party government has simultaneously resurrected hopes of acquiring Chinese submarines, a deal first floated under military leader Prayuth but scrapped due to Germany’s prohibition against its diesel engines being used in Chinese military hardware.

Vietnam, meanwhile, continues to prioritize relations with China despite its dramatic “double upgrade” to a comprehensive strategic partnership with the United States in 2023. Hanoi has pursued a strategy of multilateralization and diversification, deepening defense cooperation with Washington alongside a range of other partners, including Japan, Korea, and Australia.

Whatever the outcome of the U.S. election in November, Southeast Asian states will continue hedging for as long as possible. Asked what would cause his country to abandon its hedging strategy, Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan told Foreign Policy, “It would take an act of collective stupidity by all Singaporeans. That is not going to happen.”

Southeast Asia is used to an inconsistent and inattentive United States, and local leaders are comfortable with a certain amount of U.S.-China friction. Some, such as Vietnam, have managed to benefit from the competition via the rerouting of global supply chains away from China and renewed attention on the role of “swing states,” to quote U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

Regional leaders hope that the power contest will remain not too hot, not too cold. After all, they benefit more from a competition for influence than a feared “G-2” consensus between superpowers, which would strip smaller and middle powers in the region of agency.

Neither Trump nor Biden is likely to offer a positive economic agenda in the current political climate. Southeast Asia is left hoping that the United States will at least do no harm. Whoever wins should heed former U.S. President Barack Obama’s dictum, “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Beyond the cost of an unwanted and enormously costly conflict between the United States and China, the greater long-term risk for Washington is that its declining relevance is compounded by inattention, and it finds itself bypassed as a preferred partner on both the economic and security fronts.

In such a scenario, Southeast Asian policymakers may conclude that their security and prosperity are better served by hitching their countries to a China-centric order—and scaling back their ties with the United States if they come to be seen as more costly than they are worth.


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