What Future for the Asia Pivot Under Trump?

Council of Foreign Relations / December 14, 2016

The Obama administration spent eight years formulating a foreign policy vision that called for a central U.S. role in Asia to ensure the region’s stability, growth, and prosperity. Known as the “rebalance to Asia,” the policy involved coordinated efforts to boost U.S. defense, diplomatic, and economic ties with the Asia-Pacific. Asian leaders are now anxious to see what level of commitment Washington will dedicate to the region under U.S. President-Elect Donald J. Trump, whose positions on foreign policy remain unclear. Five experts reflect on the top priorities and challenges in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Australia.  

Karen B. Brooks, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia

The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia was felt in Southeast Asia on three fronts. First, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was an effort to bind the region’s economies more permanently to the United States. Four nations—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—signed the deal, but the framework’s architecture was designed to enable other regional players to join over time. President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s plan to withdraw from TPP represents a blow to the countries that stood to benefit from the agreement’s required reforms, as well as to the credibility of U.S. leadership on economic affairs. The immediate beneficiary of this void will almost certainly be China, which will likely advocate for its own preferred regional pact.

Secondly, the pivot encompassed efforts to strengthen U.S.-Asia defense partnerships, most notably with the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S.-Philippines alliance, in particular, had experienced a revival, until elections ushered in President Rodrigo Duterte, who spent much of his first six months in office railing against U.S. criticism of his bloody war on drugs.

Though Trump’s apparent affinity for strongmen and lack of interest in human rights may well defuse tensions with Manila in the short term, it does not yet herald a reboot of the U.S.-Philippines alliance. Trump’s transactional view of alliances, which includes an insistence that allies pay their fair shares for U.S. security guarantees, will do little to strengthen ties with a Philippine president who has already announced he wants U.S. troops out.

More importantly, central planks of Trump’s economic platform could provide real challenges to the Philippine economy. Any crackdown on illegal immigration in the United States could ensnare undocumented Filipino workers and affect remittances, a crucial source of revenue for the Philippines. Overall, remittances from overseas workers account for 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP. Trump’s intention to prevent U.S. companies from moving operations overseas could also cast a pall on growth prospects for the Philippines’ business process outsourcing sector, which accounts for another 10 percent of GDP.

The United States is a top export destination for all major Southeast Asian economies, most of which are highly dependent on trade for growth. Increases in U.S. protectionism could hurt these export-driven economies, and trade disputes with China could generate additional tensions. Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric about Muslims and inflammatory views on Islam expressed by his nominee for National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, may similarly constrain important partnerships with Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim majority nations and two of the region’s top economies. Read more…

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