United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today concluded his visit to three of South-East Asian countries. Tillerson attended a number of ministerial meetings in Manilla on 6-7 August before flying to Thailand and Malaysia on 8-9 August. During his time in Manilla, Tillerson attended the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Ministerial, the US-ASEAN Ministerial, and the Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial.
Tillerson’s visit to South-East Asia follows a number of meetings between US officials and ASEAN representatives. These include a previous visit from the US Vice President to Jakarta and a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Washington in May, as well as President Donald Trump’s meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister and Indonesia’s President on the sidelines of the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg in July. These visits are somewhat reassuring to ASEAN members following concern that the Trump Administration would abandon the progress made under its predecessor’s “pivot to Asia”. The lack of early engagement during Trump’s presidency, the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the failure to provide a substitute trade agreement do, however, raise questions about the nature of this engagement.
So far, US meetings with South-East Asian countries have been focussed on security-related issues such as North Korean missile testing and the South China Sea, while relatively little attention has been paid to economic links with the region. Trump’s commitments to US economic relations with South-East Asia also appear to be firmly centred on US interests. During his presidency so far, Trump has put a large focus on fixing trade deficits, which he believes are detrimental to the US economy, as he often states on Twitter: ‘The US recorded its slowest economic growth in five years (2016). GDP up only 1.6%. Trade deficits hurt the economy very badly’. Unfortunately for the ASEAN states, the US suffers from a large trade deficit with all of its major trading partners in South-East Asia, with the exception of Singapore. It seems unlikely that Trump will ignore that aspect if the US Government pursues stronger economic ties with South-East Asia.
The primary intent of Tillerson’s trip through South-East Asia was to ensure that regional pressure against North Korea is maintained. From the reports of the meetings so far, it appears that matters raised by Tillerson’s counterparts were only briefly discussed or were overlooked, such as the concerns expressed by Thai officials on Trump’s desire to investigate trade deficits. Tillerson’s latest round of calls seems to signify a shift in US engagement with the region. Under former President Barack Obama, there was a strong focus on strengthening economic ties, whereas, under Trump, the focus appears to have shifted to matters of security.