While leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations wait to see U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy stance toward the region, regional and international researchers have spoken of the key role former President Barack Obama played in the region, particularly by organizing the Sunnylands Summit in California last year.
Tang Siew Mun, the head of the Asean Studies Center at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Obama’s initiative was a “high water mark” of the U.S.-Asean relationship, which “now serves as a point of comparison and reflection on the future of this important bilateral relation under the Trump administration.”
“Trump’s moves and policies towards Asean will inevitably draw a close comparison with those of the Obama administration,” he added.
“Why were there no summits held prior to the Obama Administration? If ‘Asean’ is considered as part of Obama’s legacy, then the bilateral relation may be relegated to the back burners under the Trump administration.”
A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the Asean Studies Center in Indonesia, said in an email that the election of Trump was overshadowing the legacy of the Sunnylands Summit.
“Few could have predicted that such a person would become the leader of the Free World and there is no doubt that his many statements, orders and even behavior has thrown the region into tumult,” Almuttaqi said.
“One would like to think that holding the summit in the US would act as a statement that Asean-U.S. relations would remain strong and that both sides feel equally committed to this endeavor. Unfortunately, we simply do not yet know clear enough how Trump's foreign policy towards Asean will play out.”
Shihoko Goto a senior researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told VOA Khmer by phone that the relationship has changed under the new US administration.
“When they think [of] Asia, they really think [of] East Asia and that means that China is a concern, as a trade rival, as a military competitor as well but at the same time the Trump’s administration is looking more toward the traditional Asian powers like Japan as well as Korea. It sees North Korea as a big threat. It isn’t really looking to the Asean countries as much as the Obama administration had done,” she said.
“There are opportunities for Asean countries to look to multiple sources for security as well as growth... I think this is an opportunity for Asean countries to really flourish.”
Almuttaqi said that China will seize the opportunity while the U.S. is in disarray.
“Beijing has clearly not lost any time in trying to take full advantage of the disorder and chaos that has arisen from the Trump administration. For example, Xi Jinping has positioned China as a champion of free trade. Another example, while Trump has upset the Arab and Muslim states by promising to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Xi Jinping has publicly called for the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he said.
“In this sense, I believe China will do similar things in Asean if the U.S. does not engage with the bloc. This is already happening to some extent. China has signed defense deals with Malaysia and even the Philippines, despite having territorial disputes with them in the South China Sea.”
Siew Mun questioned whether the U.S. would allow China to step into a political vacuum in Asean.
“ASEAN’s relations with China will continue to grow naturally notwithstanding U.S. actions (or inaction). The critical question for U.S. policy-makers is whether Washington is willing to bear the cost of engaging Asean to retain its primacy in the region, and to avoid ceding strategic space to China,” he said.
Chheang Vannarith, a regional analyst, told VOA Khmer by phone that the U.S. may be more focused on regional security at the expense of economic growth and stability.
“But what we have seen clearly is that the U.S. focuses only on security in the Asia-Pacific region because of China and North Korea. Recently, the U.S. Secretary of Defense visited Japan and South Korea, showing the U.S. stance in the Asia-Pacific region regarding security,” he said, adding that the cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was another blow to economic development.
“We see that Obama’s legacy should remain and the new US administration should continue the policy of rebalancing to Asia because it is not only for the benefit of the region, but it is for the benefit of the U.S. as the trade and investment partnership all are in the region and security is also important. So they should not abandon the region.”
Achmad Rizal Purnama, first secretary of Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., told VOA Khmer by phone that Obama has engaged with Asean deeply.
“The infrastructures that have been created under Obama’s administration by having the U.S. Asean Leaders Summit, especially after Sunnylands meeting, it [gives] us a platform for both Asean and U.S. leaders to discuss and to advance in achieving our common goal,” he said.
“We want to see the continuation of U.S. engagement to Asean that is not only [of] benefit for Asean countries in the region, but also for the U.S.”
The Sunnylands Summit, held at Rancho Mirage, California, led to the Sunnylands Declaration between President Obama and Asean leaders. The declaration included common commitments on many issues such as trade, freedom of navigation, terrorism, trafficking in persons, climate change, the South China Sea, rule of law, good governance, and human rights.
When taken as a whole, Asean is the fifth largest economy, with a gross domestic product of about $2.4 trillion. The ten Asean countries comprise Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.