Mixed Reactions In Southeast Asia To Trump Triumph – Analysis
By Kalinga Seneviratne
Republican Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections has drawn mixed reactions. Thailand hopes that a Trump presidency will adhere to a “balanced” foreign policy, while Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia have expressed concerns that he will dismantle the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Indonesia cautioned its citizens not to react negatively to Trump’s anti-Islamic stance and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed Trump’s victory because both are “alike”.
Most countries have also expressed concerns that President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, with was put into shape by Hillary Clinton during her stint as Secretary of State could suffer because of Trump’s expected isolationist policies.
“Many countries once fretted over how the United States views the rest of the world. As the sole pre-eminent power in the post-Cold War era, that mattered,” noted Singapore’s Straits Times (ST) in an editorial. “But nations got more concerned about how Americans see themselves, as the nastiest ever race to the White House unfolded over an exceedingly long year.”
“America has been the great internationalist for decades under both Democrat and Republican presidents. Is that self-perception destined to run smack into a wall that has become a metaphor for Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ worldview?” asked ST, adding_ “If it is no longer possible to count on a dependable ally and an old predictable order, what then can one fall back on?”
Philippines outspoken President Duterte, who told President Obama to “go to hell” when he raised concerns about human rights violations in his war against drug traffickers, told reporters during a visit to Malaysia on November 10 that he has already congratulated Trump and hinted he will not be quarrelling with the U.S. anymore.
“We both curse at the slightest reason. We are alike,” he is reported to have told a gathering of Filipino workers in Kuala Lumpur. “We both make curses. Even with trivial matters we curse.”
Thailand, another traditional U.S. ally in the region which has had differences with the Obama administration on human rights concerns following the military coup two years ago, has cautiously welcomed Trump’s victory. The Nation newspaper reported that while businesses are concerned about the incoming President’s expected isolationist policies, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said that Thailand will be ready to work with the new administration provided it adheres to a balanced foreign policy with the world community.
According to economic analysts here quoted by the Nation, a Trump-led government would most likely curb imports with tariff measures or re-negotiate the terms and conditions of the controversial TPP. Yet, because Thailand is not a member of the TPP, it will augur well for the kingdom, because, Vietnam would not have an advantage over Thailand in terms of boosting its exports to the U.S. market via privileges granted by its TPP membership.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s International and Trade Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed was quoted by Star newspaper as saying, that the TPP which Malaysia signed earlier in 2016 will be jeopardized if U.S. pulls out of it. “In chapter 30 of TPPA, we need the county that contributes 85 per cent of TPP output to make it happen. So without America, there will be no TPP,” he told reporters outside the parliament.
MindaNews, a news portal based in President Duterte’s hometown of Davoa, reported that his administration’s pivot to China was “a safety net” in the likelihood of a Trump victory in the U.S. presidential elections, quoting a senior government official.
National Economic Development Authority director general Ernesto Pernia told a press conference during the second day of Philippine Development Forum in Davoa on November 9 that the President’s move was “diversifying our friends” so that the Philippines won’t crash if the “country we depend on is in trouble”.
Philippines is home to a large number of call centres serving the U.S. market and employing tens of thousands of Filipinos. Thus there are concerns that Trump’s “bring jobs back” campaign may impact on this sector. But Pernia argues that the U.S. economy is private-sector driven and he doubts Trump can compel the private investors whether to focus their investments in the U.S. or outside. “It’s the decision of the firms and not of the government unless there is a way of penalizing them,” he said.
Regarding concerns whether U.S. investment funds would be pulled back home by a Trump administration, Malaysia’s New Straits Times quoted United Overseas Bank’s economist Julia Goh as arguing that Asia’s interest rates are still attractive to U.S. investors.
“It is very volatile now in the West, as investors are adopting a wait-and-see approach in light of the presidential results, the possible fall-out from Brexit, and the ongoing challenging economic climate of the European Union,” Goh said.
She’s also added that China’s new Silk Route project called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative had created a lot of positive spill-overs into areas of infrastructure and trade.
Vietnam is worried about possible sanctions on the country’s exports as during the election campaign Trump has named Vietnam along with China, India and Japan as countries that have “ripped off” America.
“If he puts protectionist trade measures in place, particularly heavier tariffs, Viẹtnam’s trade outlook will suffer,” noted Vietnam News. The U.S. is a key export market for its agricultural produce, seafood, apparel and footwear. Vietnam is also pessimistic of the TPP being passed in the U.S. Congress.
Vietnam, which has a territorial dispute with China on the ownership of islands in the South China Sea, was strongly wooed by the Obama administration even with offers of arms to defend themselves from Chinese aggression in the seas. But this could change under a Trump administration though its foreign policy towards Asia is still not properly spelled out.
“Many believed that the U.S. presence in East Asia was far from sufficient to address potential conflicts, particularly the East Sea (South China Sea) dispute. President Trump is likely to strengthen that feeling,” noted Viet Nam News, the government’s official news agency. “The question now is whether the Trump presidency will actually abandon its allies, and to what extent?” it asked.
“Republican contender Donald Trump’s shock victory in the American presidential election will unnerve Asians who believe that their future lies with the United States in the long term. What lurks ahead are at least four years of uncertainty and possible brinkmanship in American-Asian relations,” warned Derwin Pereira of Singapore’s Straits Times.
Singapore, a staunch U.S. ally in Asia, was the major promoter of the TPP, with Prime Minister Lee Hosien Loong even visiting Washington after its signing to lobby U.S. policy makers to pass it quickly. Its unspoken objective is to act as a counterweight to China’s expansion as a world manufacturing and economic power.
Pereira points out that while the TPP may be all but gone with Trump’s victory, the ‘pivot’ which is not based on a single document, “cannot be torn up at Washington’s will”, but it is unlikely to continue in its current form. If the U.S. abandons its allies South Korea and Japan leaving them to develop their own nuclear arsenal, he argues that the economic containment of China and the military emboldening of Japan are a recipe for strategic anarchy.
“Should America move towards a parochial and even isolationist foreign policy, both sides of the Pacific would have to pay dearly,” warns Pereira. “It is China that would win from all this.”