Trump’s impact in Asean

By Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin | 17 March 2017

Originally published in Malay Mail Online on 17 March 2017.

MARCH 17 — When considering the impact of President Trump in Asean, it is necessary to appreciate the phenomenon that got him elected. Brexit to a large extent was driven by the same populist and nationalistic sentiment that Trump exploited, and across Europe we will see to what extent xenophobia and nationalist rhetoric will succeed in upcoming elections. In the Netherlands, the far-right anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders (“the Dutch Donald Trump”) has just come joint second in parliamentary elections. In France, Marine Le Pen (who explicitly stated that Trump’s victory will help her), has been enjoying high ratings ahead of next month’s presidential election.

In Germany there will be clues in state elections before federal elections in September. A few days ago, Scotland’s First Minister again stated her case for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

In our region too, populist nationalism, sometimes imbued with religious undertones, has also been invoked either by newly elected leaders (one already known as the “Trump of the East”) or by those trying to bolster their support ahead of upcoming elections.

The proliferation of populist, xenophobic and nationalist leaders or parties across Asean could jeopardise cooperation: If economic protectionism becomes the flavour of the day, the Asean Economic Community would see even slower (and more platitudinal) progress, and geopolitical competition between the United States and China would aggravate the already disunited position on the South China Sea — with diplomacy becoming increasingly bilateral and personal, rather than multilateral and institutional.

There is a positive spin to these trends in both regions, which is that the notorious Asean Way could be vindicated. The prospect of the EU unravelling provides another reminder that we should think carefully about eroding national sovereignty in pursuit of a regional identity, let alone a common currency or legislature.

A prerequisite will be the dissemination of a shared story and the investment of young people into a common destiny, but so far the project has remained elitist and bureaucratic. This must change if we want Asean to play a role in halting the mushrooming of Donald Trumps in South-east Asia.

Coming back to Trump himself, we can’t be entirely sure what his policies towards Southeast Asia will be. Already his record shows there isn’t a consistent level of ideological conviction (or some would argue, a moral basis) behind his announcements, and changes have already been made because of conflicts within the White House, as well as between the White House and other institutions.

An example of the former has been the reversal of attitudes towards the One China policy; or the contrast between Steve Bannon’s assertion that there will war between the US and China within the next decade, and other advisers saying there won’t even be a trade war.

An example of the latter can be seen by the courts blocking the Executive Orders banning citizens from Muslim-majority countries. The Trump White House is to an extent being constrained by the American system of check and balances.

The big question is whether Congress (where both houses have a Republican majority) will also be willing to restrain the president. That will depend on whether its members think their electoral chances will be aided or hampered by supporting the President.

The new healthcare bill (to replace Obamacare) has already divided Republicans, while other prominent Republicans are questioning Trump: Senator John McCain has asked for evidence of President Obama’s alleged wiretapping, while former President George W Bush defended the role of the free press after Trump’s diatribe against “fake news.”

Thus, when it comes to Asean, the consequences of even apparently clear policy statements may not be so obvious. With the US pulling out of the TPP the assumption is that it is dead, and that the RCEP will gain momentum.

But perhaps there will be new demands for multipolarity from within Asean itself. Indeed, one theme of the visit of the Saudi King to Malaysia was to show that we have balance when it comes to seeking foreign investment and partnerships.

With greater uncertainty about the geopolitical impact of Trump’s USA, accompanied by growing distrust all over the world in public institutions, now is the time for Asean’s greatest proponents to respond by articulating a democratic, flexible vision for the future of regionalism in South-east Asia.

There may be scepticism considering urgent issues such as the Rohingya crisis remain unsolved. Nonetheless, if Asean can maintain a meaningful role for itself throughout the geopolitical quagmire, then that would provide a useful defence against unpredictable or egregious leaders of countries, however powerful, with an interest in South-east Asia.

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