As the chances of Donald Trump winning re-election increase, Southeast Asia may be bracing for four more years of US policy that places strategic competition with China ahead of any efforts to promote sustainable development or address the region’s crises of wealth inequality and climate change.
It’s now highly likely that the US will re-elect Donald Trump for four more years. Last week, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary, leaving former vice president Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee to run against Trump.
Biden lacks the popular support or progressive platform of Sanders—he’s a fear candidate, who voters embrace because he offers a semblance of something familiar. Unfortunately, Biden is also likely guilty of sexual assault, may have dementia and so far offers no Green New Deal nor any plans to stop America’s endless wars or address the country’s dangerous inequality. The world is bracing for four more years of Trump.
For the past four years, US relations with Southeast Asia have come under the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy. In a 2019 report, the Pentagon called the Indo-Pacific “the single most consequential region for America’s future.”
But Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific has translated almost exclusively into across-the-board strategic competition with China. The US has missed key opportunities to promote its broader interests in the region; sustainable development, good governance and have taken a back seat to concerns about Beijing.
For Southeast Asia, four more years of Trump’s policies in Asia will mean four more years of hedging—balancing ties with China and the US, in proportion to the gains and threats offered by each. But China’s investments in the region, through the Belt and Road Initiative, total far beyond US$1 trillion, whereas US programs total in the low billions at best. Chinese foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia is more than double that of the US, without including loans and a myriad of other Belt and Road partnerships.
Source: The ASEAN Secretariat
With China offering far more opportunities for infrastructure, economic development and investment, ASEAN’s growth-hungry governments will use relations with the US primarily as a bargaining point with Beijing to push for slightly better partnerships.
As See Seng Tan at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore argues, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy forces ASEAN states to choose sides in the confrontation between the US and China. But its success also “depends on Washington’s ability to build and sustain a broad coalition as a viable counterweight to Chinese power and influence.” Trump’s foreign policy may continue to push Southeast Asian governments towards China, without achieving much.
Four more years of Trump would also have serious implications for Southeast Asia because of his climate change policy, or lack thereof. Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and his re-election would delay the chance of any progress on slowing climate change.
Southeast Asia is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to extreme weather and rising sea levels. In some ways, the region will see impacts that mirror the crises of COVID-19, from public health and economic instability to complex interactions with violent conflicts. The region can’t wait another four years for decisive action on climate.
The impacts of climate change are also tightly linked to wealth inequality, a key problem for Southeast Asia that will only continue to worsen with four more years of Trump. ASEAN is one of the most unequal regions in the world, with per-capita GDP ranging from US$4,600 in Cambodia to over $100,000 in Singapore. Thailand often ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world.
US programs are focused primarily on economic growth in the region, pushing open investment and free trade. But this model for growth is only serving to ruther entrench wealth inequality, when ASEAN states would do far better to invest in health care, education and human capital—and, as UNESCAP and others have shown time and again, wealth inequality is undermining the Sustainable Development Goals in Southeast Asia. As the coronavirus epidemic is showing, crises can quickly exacerbate growing inequalities.
Four more years of Trump will mean more programs focused on countering Beijing through free market economics, despite the fact that this might have the reverse effect. A more effective strategy to balance China’s influence would be to find domestic partners that will support civil society and grassroots movements, while strengthening government institutions that respond to inequality and social divisions.
Lastly, four more years of Trump will also further encourage a similar brand of exploitative populism in Southeast Asia. US foreign policy currently ignores the inequality, poverty and governance issues that allow strongmen like Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Thai general-turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to remain in power. On the contrary, the US considers these thinly-veiled dictators to be its closest allies in the region and makes little effort to engage in tough questions around democracy and conflict.
Trump began his presidency by engaging with ASEAN at the 2017 US-ASEAN Summit in Manila. But in 2018 and 2019, he skipped the summit and he has missed all three East Asia Summits during his presidency. Trump would continue this hands-off approach in a second term, pushing policies that perpetuate the false perception that Southeast Asian states are strategic pawns in a struggle against China. On the contrary, the US would benefit far more from building up its programs that acknowledge the vital role of domestic issues—rather than balancing between Washington and Beijing—in defining the region’s future.