BANGKOK — U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has probably never heard of ASEAN. Which could be a good thing. However, bearing in mind the importance of the sustained balancing role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific, governments in Southeast Asia cannot take a passive wait-and-see approach towards the incoming Trump administration. Given that ASEAN is a mix of governing styles with mostly self-appointed guardians of the national interest serviced by cowed bureaucrats hesitant to think outside the box, the danger is that the region could lapse into muddled sleep-walking mode throughout the next four years. The consistent message from Trump during and since the election has been that things will not be the same. He has to be taken at his word.
For Asia, remarks by both President-elect Trump and in-coming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raise the specter of an arc of volcanic political and military instability running down from the Korean Peninsula through the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea. The campaign pledge of Trump has been to pursue an “America First” policy, suggesting a more transactional and pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Trade policy will aim to seek out individual victories and bespoke bilateral trade deals that favor U.S. industries rather than creating region-wide trade blocs as the Trans-Pacific Partnership had attempted. ‘America First’ However, two salient points remain. First, the “America First” policy implies a turn back toward relative gains, with America returning to “winning big league” in trade negotiations. But a look at Trump’s early domestic ‘successes’ show a flexibility and a pragmatism in negotiations pertinent to Southeast Asian countries. Soon after the election, President-elect Trump sat down with bosses and union representatives from Carrier Air over their plans to move 2100 jobs to Mexico. Trump had made the threat that should those jobs leave Indiana factories, a 35 per cent tax would be slapped on their products and that Carrier Air’s parent company would be at risk of losing lucrative government contracts. However, the devil is in the details. Despite the bluster, there was compromise and pragmatism in the deal. The threat of punitive import taxes gave way to US$7 million in tax breaks and a promise to wind back state regulations. 1100 jobs were claimed to have been saved (later rounded down to 700), while the rest were still shipped abroad. A promise for more investment in local manufacturing jobs by Carrier in the United States was made. All parties left the negotiation table sufficiently satisfied with the outcome. For ASEAN countries, the Carrier Air agreement is a good guide for how to approach the Trump administration’s deal-making style. And second, while in its traditional form as an economic bloc between 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific the TPP might be over, but under a Trump administration the TPP could be revived in other forms in order to get deals done. Large trade blocs could make way for bilateral FTAs or agreements with industry-specific exceptions. It is hard to imagine a President Trump affording the same importance to ASEAN as President Obama did. Understandably, following in the footsteps of Obama is clearly not something that would immediately appeal to a Trump administration. Convincing Trump of the importance of ASEAN-led institutions and arrangements would be an especially hard sell. More inspired outside the box thinking is urgently required on the part of ASEAN. The maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium in the region depends on it. Trump has a good opportunity to reset U.S. relations with key partners in Southeast Asia, and thereby with the Asian region as a whole. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador and former member of parliament of Thailand; Jacob Hogan is a lecturer at Thammasat University, Bangkok.