Southeast Asian nations rush for one last deal with Trump

JAKARTA/HANOI — From the Philippines to Indonesia, countries across Southeast Asia have pursued an array of new security and economic agreements with the U.S., hoping for last-minute deals with an American president known for his transactional approach to diplomacy. 

Despite President Donald Trump’s relative lack of interest in the region — he has continued to skip attending the East Asia Summit — Southeast Asia has enjoyed a boost in trade with the U.S. during his years in office. The region is also wary of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden’s anticipated emphasis on human rights and democratic values.

The Philippines received $29 million in military equipment, including for snipers and defeating improvised explosive devices, from the U.S. in early December during a visit by acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana thanked Washington for “assistance in protecting our borders from external threats,” according to the government. President Rodrigo Duterte could use the equipment to enhance security at home.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, announced there in November $18 million in additional military equipment and training for the Philippines.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller reviews static displays of recently arrived Department of Defense-funded military assets at Villamor Air Base, Philippines during a tour of the Indo-Pacific Region on Dec. 8. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Duterte’s relations with the U.S. had become strained under then-President Barack Obama — whom Biden served as vice president — especially after Obama criticized Duterte’s harsh crackdown on illegal drugs. But Duterte’s ties with Trump have been much more cordial.

This past November, the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion investment in a planned sovereign wealth fund. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, a close ally of President Joko Widodo, attended the ceremony in Washington.

Widodo considers the fund a catalyst for Indonesia’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and aims to raise a total of about $15 billion from around the world. The U.S. was among the first countries to sign on.

Pandjaitan also met with Trump at the White House a few days before the signing. States had not finished recounting votes in the American presidential election, but major news outlets had already called the race for Biden.

Whatever the official results of the U.S. election, “we will always be friends,” Pandjaitan said in a nod to Trump, who continues to maintain that he beat Biden.

Many in Southeast Asia consider it more likely to advance security and economic cooperation with Trump, who considers himself a “deal maker,” and has a more transactional approach to international relations rather than an ideological one.

Washington this fall agreed to extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, likely to secure its cooperation against Chinese maritime expansion in the South China Sea. Miller also visited Jakarta this month, agreeing to an increase in joint military drills.

Being on the frontlines of U.S.-China competition, Southeast Asia looks to play a prominent role in geopolitics in the coming years. But the incoming Biden administration will “face an apparent contradiction in U.S. objectives,” wrote analysts Michael Green and Gregory Poling at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in a November commentary.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware on Dec. 29. 

  © AP

“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.

The CSIS analysts recommended that Biden nominate in the first three months of the administration qualified appointees for all open ambassadorships in the region and Asia-related positions in the State Department and pledge that the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense will attend all relevant ASEAN-based forums.

“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,” they said.

Southeast Asia has benefited economically under Trump. Members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the U.S. in 2019 — up roughly 60% from 2016, Obama’s last full year in office. Exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia to the U.S. have also been on the rise since Trump took office in 2017.

In October, U.S.-based power company AES decided to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam’s Binh Thuan Province. The deal will “open the door to billions of dollars per year in United States LNG exports to Vietnam,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Vietnam that month also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. The move was seen as an attempt to reduce the trade imbalance with the U.S., though the country was later labeled a currency manipulator by the Treasury Department anyway.

Concerns abound on how American policies could shift once Biden takes office in January. Obama sought to rebalance U.S. diplomacy and security policy toward Asia during his presidency. But he was criticized for being too passive and letting the Chinese militarize the South China Sea.

If Biden “adopts an Obama-era strategy, such as a ‘rebalancing policy,’ it is feared the outcome will be unclear,” said Teuku Rezasyah, permanent lecturer at Indonesia’s Padjadjaran State University.

Additional reporting by Ken Moriyasu in New York. 


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