Sunday, February 5, 2017

How Does Trump's America View ASEAN?

How does America view ASEAN in the new Trump era?  After two weeks, there is one big news item and some smaller ones.

First, the big talking point is the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea dispute.  Comments by Trump administration figures regarding the maritime dispute have been much discussed in the media, particularly in the U.S.-China context.  Yet the comments go beyond that. They remind all players in the region that the dispute is an international dispute with multiple parties involved, which cannot be resolved on a bilateral basis only between China and the Philippines, for example.  If the new U.S. administration can maintain the narrative on this basis, and avoid the on-the-ground escalations with China which have plagued previous new U.S. administrations in their early days (e.g., Taiwan in the Clinton administration or the Hainan island incident in the Bush 43 administration), so much the better for a peaceful management of the situation.

Second, less publicized was last week’s formation of a bipartisan ASEAN caucus in the U.S. Congress.  This comes after more than two years of effort in Washington, and is a positive development. As I discussed in a previous post, perhaps the biggest gain is the creation of another link with ASEAN countries for whom bilateral relations are strained at the moment, such as the Philippines. 

Third, a recent poll by YouGov published in the New York Times illustrates that country’s fall in reputation in the U.S. since 2014.  Polls taken in 2014 and 2017 surveyed Americans’ perceptions of other countries as allies or enemies of the United States, further breaking down perceptions based on party preferences; I post some selected data here (green shading means positive, red shading means negative):

This poll should be viewed as an indication of both familiarity and popularity.  The former explains why European countries are the highest ranked, given that most Americans originated in Europe, and Europe is closer geographically.  The latter is affected by historical memory; Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and Pakistan fall near the bottom of the rankings, and North Korea is consistently ranked as the worst enemy.

For ASEAN countries, the poll shows mixed results.  The Philippines went from being the highest ranked Asian country in 2014 (9th) to falling to 41st place in 2017.  This reflects the constant negative media coverage of the Duterte administration since it came to power.  On the other hand, this ranking is consistent with rankings for the other ASEAN countries and is still higher than the other seven ranked members (the poll itself is distorted by not including Brunei and Singapore, although it did include sparsely-populated Greenland, which was ranked 10th in 2014 and 23rd in 2017!).

For the other ASEAN countries, the polls show their relative lack of impression on the American public. The rankings show relatively little movement from 2014 to 2017, which was the case for most Asian countries (the above chart shows Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea for reference).  Furthermore, it is hard to discern the links between favorability and recent developments in the region.  For example, Myanmar went through a transition to a democratic government led by the popular Aung San Suu Kyi, yet the poll says that it fell in rankings from 102nd in 2014 to 117th in 2017, and ranked lower than Cambodia.    Vietnam, which has a large diaspora in the U.S., ranked lower than Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which do not, probably because of lingering sentiments from the Vietnam War (which ended more than 40 years ago).

The foregoing indicates that ASEAN members will need to be resourceful in the coming years, given their diplomatic and political situations.  The ASEAN congressional caucus is a useful forum for ASEAN members, but other tools and means should be pursued.   ASEAN members need to expand American perceptions of ASEAN beyond the South China Sea and media reports, and increase economic and cultural ties. For example, the Trump administration has signaled that it may pursue bilateral free trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand. This opportunity comes because of the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and should be pursued by all sides.

In other words, ASEAN faces a significantly different relationship with the United States. Rather than simply throwing up their collective hands in frustration (or worse) its members need to engage and work with the United States to build upon that relationship.