BY: ANDY LAUB
President Donald Trump came home from Manila practically empty-handed from his first major multilateral summit at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition, following his meeting with President Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, noted the two did not discuss human rightsin their conversations. Trump’s lack of interest in discussing anything but trade in Asia is indicative of a larger security dilemma, which includes the US alienating the interests of longstanding allies.
WHY IT MATTERS:
In the aftermath of Trump’s decision to pull out of the TPP, negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the eleven remaining nations have continuedintact with almost all the same language as before. Although TPP earned a lot of criticism in the United States, it was a pivotal point of security and the counterpart to China’s One Belt One Road initiative. With the U.S. definitively pulling out of the TPP, the current administration has allowed China to take the reins of trade in the region, which comes as a threat to many US allies. Apart from trade, North Korea was a much discussed topic but nothing substantive came out of it such as new sanctions or the possibility of diplomatic intervention. Following the Summit, President Trump re-enlisted the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism, a largely symbolic move, which he claims will allow the United States to apply tougher sanctions in line with his strategy to apply maximum pressure on North Korea that has yielded no results thus far. Instead of discussing further sanctions, President Trump could have used the opportunity to coordinate with ASEAN leaders on how they could help pave the way for a more comprehensive diplomatic approach to North Korea, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has advocated.
Since its birth in 1967, ASEAN has been a pivotal anchor of peace and stability for the entire Asia Pacific region. It has consistently aimed to harmonize globalization through its integration of “speaking with one voice” and has made major contributions to multilateralism. ASEAN has also hosted other important leaders from around the world such as the United States and Russia providing an important forum for diplomacy. Yet, it is not without its vices as its membership is dependent on geography as opposed to their political track record or like-mindedness. With countries such the Philippines that have recently been in the limelight for human rights abuses as have others such as Myanmar, accused of ethnic cleansing, ASEAN is not interested in sowing the seeds of democracy in a way that other regional organizations like the EU have. Ultimately, ASEAN is not a traditional regional security apparatus as disputes in the South China Sea have continued unabated despite an outward showing of diplomacy. When it comes to security, ASEAN has not been able to provide the same sense of security that other regional organizations have. ASEAN member states continue to indulge in “minilateralism” by forming security arrangements that suit their specific needs such as the Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines Trilateral Maritime Patrol. Given its long history in East Asia, the United States has traditionally been a guarantor of security for countries like the Philippines and have coordinated military exercises with ASEAN member states in order to curb China’s influence in the region. However, as President Trump attempts to take a hands off approach, ASEAN member states run the risk of falling prey to China’s expansive ambitions or falling into the throes of human rights abuses as states attempt to maintain a semblance of power.