Dr Brendan Taylor
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the dog that thus far hasn’t barked during the Trump presidency. Trump has shown little affection towards other multilateral organisations and processes. He has described the United Nations as "just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time" and is seeking to slash United States funding to UN programs by more than 50 per cent.
Trump has called on members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to assume a greater share of the burden for defending Europe, threatening that Washington will "moderate its commitment" to the alliance if they do not. He has also described NATO as "obsolete". Trump made good on his campaign pledge of withdrawing from the TPP, essentially sounding its death knell in the process. And yet in the case of ASEAN he has said little if anything.
American inattention towards ASEAN is not new. Washington’s focus upon Southeast Asia has waxed and waned. The George W. Bush administration, for instance, designated this sub-region as a ‘second front’ in the so-called ‘Global War on Terror.’ Yet this administration was seen to be disengaged from ASEAN processes, as epitomised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice missing two meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 2005 and 2007 respectively.
The Obama administration explicitly sought to rectify this perception, with Rice’s immediate successor Hillary Clinton pledging to attend annual ARF meetings. America also joined the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit (EAS) under Obama’s watch.
Southeast Asia was given particular emphasis in Obama’s signature Asia initiative, the so-called ‘pivot’ or rebalancing strategy. Yet Obama himself reinforced earlier concerns by failing to attend the 2013 meeting of the EAS. By the end of his second term in office, serious questions were being raised regarding the substance (or lack thereof) of the rebalance, especially in relation to the South China Sea.
As William Tow has recently observed, "During President Obama’s second term in office (2013-2016), his highly touted rebalancing or pivot strategy towards Asia announced in 2011 has fallen into unexpected disarray. This has especially been the case in Southeast Asia."
Whether Trump attends the November 2017 gathering of the East Asia Summit is seen by some commentators as a litmus test for his approach and commitment towards ASEAN. There are very real concerns that he won’t, with serious implications for the future of this forum. Interestingly, however, much less attention has been given to the possibility that Trump does attend and publicly denigrates the forum.
It is certainly not inconceivable that we could see the following (at this point hypothetical) tweet displayed on Trump’s twitter account later this year: Joined my LAST East Asia Summit today. Silly shirts and VERY BAD karaoke. All talk, no action. Another Obama Administration disaster. Sad!
Whether Trump misses or makes the 2017 EAS, these concerns come at a time of acute fragility for ASEAN. The organisation has fractured repeatedly in recent years, especially in relation to mounting tensions around the South China Sea disputes. Signs of ASEAN unity faltering started to appear in July 2012 when, for the first time in the organisation’s 45-year history, it failed to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of its annual summit in Phenom Penh, Cambodia.
At issue were disagreements over whether reference should be made in the statement to a South China Sea standoff involving Chinese and Filipino vessels that began in April of that year. Episodes exposing ASEAN disunity have recurred during the period since. In the closing communique from the ASEAN Summit of April 2015, for instance, no mention was made of China in the context of the South China Sea disputes, reportedly due to tensions between Manila and the Malaysian chair of the meeting over how ASEAN should be engaging Beijing in relation to this issue.
Similarly, tensions were again on display at a so-called special ASEAN-China foreign ministers meeting that was held in the Chinese city of Yuxi, in June 2016. On this occasion, while no joint ASEAN-China statement was issued at the end of the meeting, a document purporting to represent an ASEAN consensus was released and subsequently retracted for ‘urgent amendments’ only a matter of hours later. This retraction was reportedly due to Cambodian and Laotian discomfort with the statement’s content.
These very public displays of ASEAN disunity have led to speculation that a more fractured organisation will not be able to continue to occupy its largely self-appointed driver’s seat position at the centre of the region’s institutional architecture. Concerns are also mounting that China will step in to fill this void, especially if ASEAN’s unravelling occurs against the backdrop of American disinterest or disengagement. Beijing certainly has form here.
While Washington was seen to be distracted by events in the Middle East during the George W. Bush years, commentators were concerned that China was quietly carving out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. Likewise, Obama’s absence from the October 2013 EAS is widely seen to have afforded his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, the opportunity to further advance Beijing’s influence within the Southeast Asian sub-region.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the Trump administration will pose to ASEAN, however, is through the impact that its policies will have upon Asia’s broader strategic order. While it is often assumed that multilateral institutions such as ASEAN play an important role in shaping strategic order, a case can be made that they are ultimately as much, if not more, a reflection of the order itself. On this count, analysts have been predicting for some time now that the incumbent American-led order will gradually give way to some form of multipolarity, in line with shifts in economic weight occurring in the region.
Trump’s ‘America first’ approach is likely to hasten that shift towards multipolarity. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to ‘make America great again’. What he didn’t say, but what his more inward-looking approach also implies, is that this is likely to result in the United States transitioning from being a superpower with global interests towards the adoption of a more traditional great power posture. In other words, Trump will also "make America a great power again", speeding the transition toward a multipolar Asian (and possibly even global) strategic order.
As an organisation that has traditionally prided itself on an ability to manage its relations with multiple major powers, ASEAN may well fare rather well in such an order. As Evelyn Goh has observed, Southeast Asian states have long feared the emergence of an unstable multipolarity in Asia.
Their response has been to ‘hedge’ against this possibility by including each of that order’s potential poles in the region’s strategic affairs. In other words, by not excluding any of the region’s major powers, they have avoided choosing between them. At the same time, however, while such an approach was viable during a time of nascent strategic competition, it could conceivably be tested severely in an era of intensifying major power rivalry. Indeed, ASEAN’s repeated inability to agree over the South China Sea in recent times could be a sign of things to come.
There are both opportunities and risks here for Canberra. A fragmenting ASEAN that ultimately splinters under the weight of major power influence brings that very influence much closer to Australia. In recent decades, Southeast Asia has served as a buffer to Australia’s north, shielding the Lucky Country from the region’s major power machinations. Any serious breakdown in ASEAN unity thus risks Australia becoming more exposed to these.
However, American inattention towards ASEAN also opens up the spectre of Australia undertaking its own Southeast Asia ‘pivot’ as a hedge against the possibility of United States disinterest and the worst case scenario of Washington’s withdrawal. Indeed, there are some indications that such a pivot is already underway.
In the words of one of Australia’s leading scholars of Southeast Asia, Anthony Milner, "the way in which we are at present deepening relations with Singapore and Indonesia, together with our prudent handling of the difficult political situation in Malaysia, suggests Australia might at last be putting together the elements of a Plan B designed for a possible post-American era – an era in which the United States may be powerful but will no longer be dominant."