How Will Trump Respond to Duterte's 'Game-Changer' in Asia?

How Will Trump Respond to Duterte's 'Game-Changer' in Asia?
Photo Credit:Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Will Trump attend next year’s ASEAN–U.S. Summit in Manila? The decision will have far-reaching implications.

Over the coming weeks, the transitional foreign policy team of president-elect Donald Trump has to make a crucial decision: will Trump attend next year’s ASEAN–U.S. Summit in Manila? Trump’s decision will have far-reaching repercussions for U.S. policy in Asia.
It will also impact on the Philippines, the current ASEAN chair and America’s oldest ally in the region.

If everything goes according to plan, Trump will travel to Southeast Asia to take part in the fourth summit between ASEAN and the United States next November. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, has used this platform and related summits during his two terms to strengthen ties with ASEAN. The grouping has been seen as a fulcrum around which the global powers can meet and network both formally and informally.

This year’s summit in February was an extraordinary event — a symbol of Obama’s successful engagement with ASEAN leaders, whom he has met with on 11 occasions. His rebalance policy has also augmented the United States’ commitment to peace and stability in Asia and the Pacific.

By joining the Philippine hosted ASEAN–US Summit, the new U.S. administration would also send a strong signal that Washington still values strategic and security ties with Manila. Just a few weeks ago, President Duterte repeatedly declared that he would like his country to distance itself from the United States. He also expressed a wish to decrease the scope of joint U.S.–Philippines military exercises, and said that he may even scrap the new agreement on enhanced security cooperation concluded last year under the Aquino administration.

If the new U.S. president decides to skip the trip next November and focuses instead on domestic or other issues, the ASEAN–U.S. relationship will quickly falter as other major powers compete fiercely for influence in Asian space. Most importantly, Trump will miss the opportunity to meet with other leaders from East Asia, who will join the leaders-only security forum known as the East Asia Summit (EAS).

After the EAS expanded in 2011 to include the United States and Russia, the former has dominated the agenda, pushing strategic issues such as counter-terrorism and climate change into the mainstream. In recent months, the regional political and security landscape has shifted in response to growing anxieties about the new direction of U.S. politics. Any indication that the United States is paying less attention to the region would severely damage its credibility.

Without Trump, other EAS leaders will fill the vacuum and set the EAS agenda, especially on issues related to instituting a new regional security architecture. It is an open secret that China and Russia are actively promoting their own comprehensive security arrangements.

After Duterte’s visit to Beijing last month, the Philippines’ relationship with China has improved dramatically, despite the July decision by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea. Neither side discussed the verdict during the visit: instead they chose to dwell on the future of trade, investment and joint cooperation and development in the disputed maritime areas.

By addressing maritime disputes bilaterally with China, Duterte has done what his predecessors have failed to do — return to ASEAN’s long-held position that territorial battles must be settled bilaterally and that other aspects of joint cooperation can be engaged with under the framework of the ASEAN–China relationship.

Adding salt to the wound, the expected demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led high-end free trade agreement, has demoralized its Asian signatories, especially the four ASEAN members (Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Singapore) who placed their faith in the US economy.

China under President Xi Jinping (習近平) has adopted an extremely pro-active foreign and economic policy stance, enticing more and more countries into the Chinese sphere of influence. The "Belt and Road" initiative is gradually making inroads as the first continent-wide connectivity scheme. With 57 member countries, China’s financial brainchild — the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank — is beginning to provide much-needed funds for essential infrastructure projects in the region.

By reducing tensions with China over the maritime disputes these past months, Manila has strengthened China–ASEAN cooperation on the eve of its 25th anniversary. If the trend continues and relationships remain productive, other claimants may move to settle and manage their disputes with China. Malaysia’s recent discussion with China over its maritime issues with China is a good example. As the Philippines returns to ASEAN’s embrace, Duterte will play a crucial role in ASEAN’s engagement with the major powers contesting for influence in the region.

But it remains to be seen how the Trump administration will deal with maritime security issues.

For the time being, claimants in the South China Sea are pursuing a wait and see strategy and sticking to the status quo following the Hague verdict. This provides some space for the parties to work out their differences and identify common areas of interest for joint development and cooperation.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum.

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White