Trump’s handling of the Middle East is an ominous sign of things to come

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons Licensing

US President Donald Trump announced plans to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. What will this mean for ASEAN nations?

By Oliver Ward

US President Donald Trump announced on 6 December that he would formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He outlined plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv.

ASEAN nations reacted with unanimous disapproval

Leaders across ASEAN nations condemned the move. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reaffirmed its commitment to a two-state solution. It denounced President Trump’s decision as a premature action that would impede progress towards a peaceful solution.

Source: UHAAI University

The most vocal critics were the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia. These states are the two largest Muslim majority nations in ASEAN. They saw the move as a direct act of aggression against the Islamic world. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed his opposition at an annual United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) meeting. He said, “I call on Muslims across the world to let your voices be heard, make it clear that we strongly oppose any recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for all time”.

Source: IM

In Indonesia, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi donned a black and white Palestinian scarf as a gesture of solidarity. She reinforced Indonesia’s commitment to the Palestinian people during her opening speech at the 10th Bali Democracy Forum. “Indonesia will always stand with Palestine,” she proclaimed.

Source: IM

Trump’s decision sparked protests from the Indonesian public. On Sunday the 9th of December, thousands of people protested outside the US embassy in Jakarta. One protester named Yusri expressed his anger at President Trump. “Trump has disrupted world peace. It’s terrible”.

The incident could have more significant consequences for Najib

Najib has previously touted his close ties to President Trump. In September 2017, Najib’s government described his visit to the US as a success. Najib reaffirmed Malaysia as a comprehensive partner to the US. He also witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Malaysia Airways and Boeing. At the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila, Trump called Najib a “very good friend”. The two played golf together before Trump took office.

In the wake of Trump’s recent actions, Najib will have to do all he can to distance himself from the unpredictable president. Malaysian opposition parties have already jumped on the opportunity to score points against Najib. The parliamentary opposition leader Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said, “Prime Minister Najib Razak should immediately contact his good friend President Trump, to put on record Malaysia’s condemnation of the US move.”

Malaysia is not in the position to act on its disapproval. Najib has already publicly denounced the actions. Najib will likely play down his close relationship with President Trump in the run-up to the 2018 election.

How will it affect the rest of ASEAN?

The repercussions of Trump’s move will ripple across the whole region. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded to Trump’s move. He said the US was no longer qualified to broker peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

China was quick to reassert that it remains committed to a two-state solution. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “We support the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights and stand behind Palestine in building an independent, full sovereignty state”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also reaffirmed China’s position when he met Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki in April. Wang called on Israel and Palestine to resume peace talks “as early as possible”.

As Trump pulls the US further away from peace talks in the Middle East, China is putting itself in the position to fill the vacuum left behind. During Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to China in July, Xi Jinping put forward his four-point proposal for peace talks in the Middle East. He also promised to provide financial support to Palestine.

China is determined to play a more active role in international affairs and improve its standing on the world stage. This is happening at a time when many ASEAN nations are looking to the US to offset this dominance. If China can strengthen its international standing, there are fears it will strengthen its position in the South China Sea dispute.

The news the US will no longer play the role of a peace broker in the Middle East is a setback for ASEAN. It diminishes the importance of the US in international diplomacy. It could be the beginning of a worrying trend that will see the US retreat from international affairs. Should this happen, China will increase its dominance over the region. A more powerful China will alter the balance of the South China Sea dispute, which could have ominous repercussions for ASEAN claimant nations.