Southeast Asia’s autocratic leaders have adored Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and at times won trade and defense deals without adequate scrutiny of their poor human rights records. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden will take a tougher stance on democracy and human rights in bilateral deals.
By Umair Jamal
As Donald Trump’s final days as the president of the United States draw to a close, Southeast Asia’s governments are rushing to make agreements with an American president known for his transactional and business-oriented approach to diplomacy.
Though Trump’s highly-personalized and impulsive style of diplomacy may have created turbulence for America’s Southeast Asia policy, the approach was welcomed by rulers with poor human rights records.
It is not a surprise that officials of many Southeast Asian governments, particularly in the Philippines and Vietnam, hoped for a Trump win in the US presidential election.
With President-elect Joe Biden, Southeast Asia’s governments should prepare for an American president whose foreign policy will bring a strong ideological approach focused on democracy and human rights, alongside a transactional view towards promoting US economic and security interests.
Southeast Asia’s strongmen liked Trump’s America
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election pleased autocratic leaders in Southeast Asia as it signaled an abandonment of the US strategic focus in the region during the Obama years. Obama pursued a policy of rebuilding ties with Southeast Asia as part of a broader US strategy known as his Asia pivot.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed Trump’s win as an opportunity to patch up ties that had frayed amid US criticism of his brutal war on drugs. “I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won,” Duterte said after the 2016 election. Noting their common love for crass language, Duterte—who had called President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and told him to “go to hell”—said that he and Trump were “both making curses. Even with trivial matters we curse.” President Trump invited Duterte to the White House during a phone call and praised his efforts to rid his country of drugs.
Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who overthrew a popularly elected government in 2014, noted that Trump’s victory reflected the people’s voice and must be accepted. The ongoing pro-democracy protests targeting the Thai military and monarchy have not received much assistance from President Trump.
Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest-ruling leader, gave Trump a special welcome. “I would like to congratulate His Excellency Donald Trump for achieving victory in the US presidential election,” he wrote on his Facebook page in 2016. “Several days ago I publicly supported your candidature. Since then several individuals have come out to criticize me and referred to you, His Excellency Donald Trump, as a dictator for having endorsements coming from a leader like myself. At this moment the American voters have shown their choice to elect His Excellency the same way as my support for your candidacy is not wrong either,” he added. Ahead of the 2016 US election, Hun Sen said publicly, “If Trump wins, the world might change and it might be better because Trump is a businessman and a businessman doesn’t want war.”
Trump’s presidency also saw positive reactions from some non-autocratic leaders. In 2016, Malaysia’s then-prime minister Najib Razak congratulated Trump, saying his win was a sign that American voters no longer wanted their country to be embroiled in interventions abroad. “His appeal to Americans who have been left behind—those who want to see their government more focused on their interests and welfare, and less embroiled in foreign interventions that proved to be against US interests—have won Mr Trump the White House,” Najib said in a statement. During the Obama years, Najib faced the embarrassment of a US investigation into the alleged looting of billions of dollars from Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund.
What has Trump offered Southeast Asia’s leaders during his last months as president?
Despite President Trump’s relative lack of interest in Southeast Asia, the region has enjoyed a boost in trade with the US during his years in office. The region received about US$24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, roughly a 60% increase from 2016, Obama’s last year as President. Moreover, since Trump took office in 2017, exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia to the US have also been on the rise.
In December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment from the US. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged US “assistance in protecting our borders from external threats.” Earlier, US Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett gave the Philippine Navy a ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial System which will boost the Philippine military’s intelligence and surveillance. Recently, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien donated $18 million in additional military equipment and training to the Philippine military.
In October 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that US-based power company AES and PetroVietnam plan to sign an agreement on a $2.8 billion liquefied natural gas project. Pompeo said the deal would “open the door to billions of dollars per year in United States LNG exports to Vietnam.” Last year, the US agreed to extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia.
In all these deals, President Trump has hardly put the issue of human rights and democracy on the table. Compared to Trump, Biden, from the opposition Democratic Party, has at least expressed more concern about human rights issues.
Why are Southeast Asian governments wary of a Biden Presidency?
With President-elect Joe Biden only weeks away from his inauguration, there are questions on how US Southeast Asia policy could shift. During his presidential campaign, Biden boldly declared that “human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy”.
However, being on the front lines of the US-China rivalry, Southeast Asia is likely to find some consistency in policies from Biden’s White House.
Analysts warn that the incoming Biden administration will “face an apparent contradiction in U.S. objectives,” wrote Michael Green and Gregory Poling at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “On the one hand, it is critical to expand engagement and capacity building in Southeast Asia to reinforce resilience against coercion by Beijing. On the other hand, democratic governance in much of the region is deteriorating, and that has gone unaddressed over the last four years,” they wrote.
Green and Poling recommended that Biden should make qualified appointments for all open ambassadorships in the region and Asia-related positions in the State Department within the first three months of his presidency, writing “Ensure that statements by all nominees are consistent on the role of democracy and good governance within a larger strategy of re-engagement with the region.”
Biden’s presidency will bring back the side of America’s approach to foreign policy that talks about human rights and democracy—an approach that has caused friction with Southeast Asia’s autocratic rulers for decades.