While the incoming U.S. presidential administration focuses on domestic issues that drove the presidential campaign, from health care to tax reform, U.S. relations with Southeast Asia are likely to be mostly forgotten. Southeast Asian states were not a focus of the campaign, although the presidential candidates did condemn the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which included much of Southeast Asia and is now almost surely dead. Even the South China Sea, the most critical security issue in the region, received only occasional mentions on the campaign trail.
In a new era where they are likely to be largely ignored in Washington, Southeast Asian nations, which more than any others already had to balance between Washington and Beijing, are rapidly readjusting to a new reality. That new reality is likely to be Beijing’s regional ascendance, especially on trade issues, and growing worries about the United States’ long-term security relationships with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. From 2011 to 2014, the early period of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia, Southeast Asian nations enjoyed a renewed prominence in foreign policy discussions in Washington, a prominence they had not enjoyed since the Cold War. Although the rebalance often mystified regional leaders with its vague promises and unclear timetable, it at least rhetorically elevated Southeast Asia in U.S. policymaking, and forced some U.S. leaders to focus on the South China Sea, on supporting multilateral institutions, and on promoting regional trade.
But even before the presidential election, dissatisfaction had been growing in Southeast Asia over the perceived failures of the rebalance. Nations like Singapore and Vietnam, whose governments wanted stronger commitments from Washington on bilateral security and regional free trade, had already been disappointed by a lack of clear follow-through. They had already factored in the possibility that the United States would refocus its attention, after the presidential campaign, on domestic challenges and other areas of the world, such as the Middle East and the U.S.-Mexico relationship. In addition, they had been preparing rapidly to guarantee their own security. Indeed, Southeast Asia is already witnessing a massive arms race, with Vietnam and Singapore—two of the countries most worried about Chinese power projection—among the biggest weapons buyers. Vietnam is now one of the ten largest arms buyers of any country in the world, and Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are upgrading their navies and air forces, in an unmistakable signal to China.
Meanwhile, even before the election domestic politics in the Philippines and Thailand had begun to push Manila and Bangkok away from Washington. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who seems to have long-standing and deep feelings of anti-Americanism, has long wanted Manila to distance itself from its relationship with Washington. In the past six months, he has aggressively moved to place the Philippines closer to Beijing, although he has not yet torn up the main documents underpinning the U.S.-Philippines alliance. Meanwhile, Thailand’s ruling junta has sought closer links to Beijing as leading democracies have condemned its rights abuses and questionable commitment to a return to democracy.
Now, many Southeast Asian nations fear that they will have to either build closer ties to Beijing or bolster their own security, as the United States focuses its gaze internally. Some hope that a new administration will make good on the president-elect’s promises to bolster the U.S. navy, modernizing the force and stepping up the building of new ships, would have a significant impact on maintaining order in the South China Sea and preserving balance in the region. And some Southeast Asian nations see a chance that the new administration will include senior officials known for their hawkish stances on China and support for U.S. relations with treaty allies in Southeast Asia.
But on economic issues, Southeast Asian nations are already moving toward a fallback plan. Several Southeast Asian nations, as well as Australia, have indicated that they will turn to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as the TPP falters, and Beijing has already begun aggressively pushing the RCEP as the region’s best hope for trade integration. The RCEP is a far less comprehensive agreement than the TPP, but it now looks like the only game in town. Even some of the Southeast Asian nations with the least to gain from the RCEP, like Singapore—whose economy is already quite open to most other Asian nations—are likely going to sign up to the RCEP, according to several Singapore academics, since the Singapore government believes that, without the TPP, the RCEP will at least advance the broader goal of freeing regional trade. Vietnam, too, which probably had the most to gain from the TPP, according to studies by the Peterson Institute and other research organizations, is now likely to throw its weight behind the RCEP.