Sunday, August 06, 2017

Tillerson May Not Bring ASEAN, US Closer
By Ge Hongliang
Global Times
Published: 2017/8/6 19:28:39
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a visit to the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia from August 5 to 9. Tillerson's maiden trip to Southeast Asia comes after his first meeting with 10 ASEAN foreign ministers on May 4 in Washington.

During the visit, Tillerson will discuss with his counterparts of other countries the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maritime security on the South China Sea and regional counter-terrorism. In the end, however, Tillerson's visit to Southeast Asia is unlikely to change the status quo of the "China-ASEAN-US" triangular relationship since it won't help change ASEAN member countries' mixed feelings toward the Trump administration.

The year 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the US-ASEAN dialogue partnership. However, bilateral ties are once again on the rocks, just as they were 10 years ago.

Today bilateral relations between the US and ASEAN are beset by problems and difficulties that have cropped up after Donald Trump was sworn in as US president.

The Trump administration's unclear attitude toward Southeast Asia has triggered unease among ASEAN member countries, which can be seen from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat held on February 21 in Boracay, Philippines. In addition, recent upheavals among Trump's team have caused doubt among observers as to how long Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will last in their posts.

Tillerson most likely has two goals for his trip: to maintain the US policy of contact and appeasement on Southeast Asia and to lay the groundwork for Trump's maiden visit to the Philippines and participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting and the East Asia Summit. Undoubtedly, this trip shows the US is paying more attention to Southeast Asia and it intends to improve its relations with Southeast Asian states like the Philippines and Thailand. However, Southeast Asian countries are still waiting for the US to issue a clear stance on its policy for the region.

The US has not yet formed its policy on Southeast Asia as it is subordinate to the US' China policy, which is still at the exploratory stage. Under these circumstances, ASEAN member countries are putting more emphasis on developing a mutually beneficial community and focusing on pragmatic dialogues and cooperative partnerships with China.

Within the China-ASEAN-US triangular relationship, the three sides are heavily intertwined with each other.

On the economic front, China and ASEAN are working to promote practical communication and business cooperation. They have also increased focus on the development of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and negotiations concerning the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

In terms of security, Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar are gradually embracing China through means such as sealing arms deals with China and establishing normal security dialogues and cooperative partnerships. The Framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which was approved by China and ASEAN member states in May and endorsed by foreign ministers from the ASEAN countries on Saturday during the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting, represents a remarkable achievement for security dialogue between China and ASEAN concerning the South China Sea.

In contrast, the Trump administration lacks a clear policy toward Southeast Asia, while its security relations with the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia have been strained.

In addition, Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposal led by the Obama administration to create the world's biggest trade pact, but failed to propose a substitute. Instead, Trump's conservative attitude toward global economic coordination has invoked anxiety among some Southeast Asian countries.

In light of rising competition between China and the US and the imbalanced political situation in the region, ASEAN member states are ramping up efforts to build a community of common destiny and strengthen their decisive role in regional affairs.

Apart from conducting the freedom of navigation operation, the Trump administration hasn't placed the same emphasis on Southeast Asia as the Obama administration.

The US-ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting and Tillerson's trip to Southeast Asia do indicate the US is not going to ignore the region. However, since this trip will not move beyond the scope of contact and appeasement, the chances that Tillerson will impact the status quo of China-ASEAN-US triangular relations are low.

The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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