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By Maria Eloisa I. Calderon

Trump leaves Southeast Asian treaty partner guessing


Posted on March 07, 2017

UNITED STATES President Donald J. Trump bared a bit more of his foreign policy in his first speech to the US Congress last week, but the contours remained blurred, leaving treaty partner the Philippines stranded in a diplomatic wilderness.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a lunch with House and Senate leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on March 1, 2017. AFP
Mr. Trump assured the United States’ allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and “partners in the Middle East, or the Pacific” that his new administration will continue to respect his country’s treaties.

But his Feb. 28 televised speech was silent on growing tensions with China in the South China Sea, so that foreign policy experts and the diplomatic community were left with very little to digest.

The next two big occasions that could reveal how much premium the American president gives Southeast Asia, and the Philippines in particular, would be the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit which the Philippines is chairing, Southeast Asia security expert Murray Hiebert from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) said in a Feb. 28 interview with BusinessWorld.

Both summits are scheduled for November -- which means eight months of second-guessing the world’s only superpower now in the hands of an inward-looking leadership.

“In Southeast Asia, there is legitimate ground for worrying about strategic abandonment by America,” Richard J. Heydarian, author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, said in a March 1 mobile phone reply when asked for his views.

“In a radical departure from the Obama administration, Trump and his core officials have barely mentioned ASEAN in their statements, even informal and secondary ones,” he noted.

“In contrast, we see robust and urgent engagement with Northeast Asian powers of Japan and South Korea, which shows where Trump’s strategic priorities lie.”

To be fair, Mr. Trump did not mention Russia, the war in Aleppo and Mosul, nor other flash points.

But he did say “America is willing to find new friends and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align,” which some observers took as a reference to Russia.

Mr. Trump’s friendly overtures to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte had earlier acknowledged as his “idol,” had raised hopes that currently icy relations between Manila and Washington could thaw.

Mr. Duterte, who gained power in June last year, had antagonized Mr. Trump’s predecessor Barack H. Obama while cozying up to China and Russia.

But apart from a phone call between the Philippine and American leaders late last year following the latter’s election victory, there has been no other encouraging signal.

From South Korea to Japan to Europe, Mr. Trump had already sent his lieutenants in visits to reassure allies that host US troops and are in close proximity to North Korea -- whose nuclear and missile programs worry Pentagon -- and to signal that the NATO alliance won’t be abandoned.

James N. Mattis’ pivot to Seoul and Tokyo in February marked his maiden foreign trip as Pentagon chief.

Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer, last month made his diplomatic debut as US Secretary of State, meeting in Bonn his counterparts from Russia and China. Over the weekend, NHK and Nikkei reported he is expected to follow in Mr. Mattis’ footsteps with a visit to Japan, South Korea and China set for this month, his first trip to the region.

And just like Mr. Mattis, he skips Southeast Asia.

And even if the US sent an aircraft carrier to patrol the South China Sea two weekends ago and launched the annual “Cobra Gold” war games with Thailand also in mid-February, America’s friends in Southeast Asia shouldn’t be quick to take that to mean Mr. Trump is continuing Mr. Obama’s “Asia pivot”.

That old US foreign policy towards Asia was aimed at boosting security and building strong ties within the region as counterbalance to China’s growing might.

“That was the decision of the Navy, which is independent-minded,” a Filipino diplomat who requested anonymity said in an interview on Feb. 23.

Mr. Trump “had made some efforts with Northeast Asia but Southeast Asia’s time hasn’t come yet, including what he’ll do with West Philippine Sea,” Washington-based CSIS’ Mr. Hiebert said, referring to how the Philippines call the South China Sea.

The Philippines is one of the claimants to the disputed waterways and, in July last year, won a landmark ruling from a Hague court that said China’s nine-dash line has no legal basis.

“There are all these uncertainties and part of it is because there’s not many people in their post,” he added, noting Mr. Trump’s lean team given unfilled senior appointments.

It’s hard to read just yet Mr. Trump’s foreign policy cues as it “is still evolving,” said Foreign Secretary Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr.

Media reports earlier quoted Mr. Yasay as saying he wanted to meet Mr. Tillerson, the US State secretary who during his confirmation hearing in January this year warned that the US would stop China from using the artificial islands the latter built in South China Sea.

“I was saying it in the context of ASEAN. In so far as we are concerned, there has been no indication to us about what is the [US] foreign policy. He [Tillerson] must have made the rounds with other countries [but] my point is that might be because of the bilaterals they’re pursuing,” Mr. Yasay told BusinessWorld last Feb. 23.

“We will see how a meeting [with Tillerson] can be arranged,” he said, noting that he “will probably have to go to Washington DC” for that dialogue.

“I don’t think it will be earlier than May,” Mr. Yasay said when asked for a timetable.

Symbolic Trump gestures to watch out for next, Mr. Hiebert said, would be: “Does he go to APEC in Vietnam in November? Does he go to the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines?”

The 31st ASEAN Summit tentatively slated for November 10-14 in Clark, Pampanga will bring together the bloc’s 10-member nations as well as China, Japan, and South Korea. APEC, meanwhile, groups 21 economies from Asia and the Pacific, seven of whom also belong to ASEAN.

How much longer can the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia hold their breath until Mr. Trump finally enunciates a policy towards the region?

“State department’s budget could be cut by a staggering third, which shows how little premium Trump team puts on diplomacy,” Mr. Heydarian said.