What does “Trump’s Triumph” Mean for ASEAN?


Dedi Dinarto, Researcher at ASEAN Studies Center UGM

The triumph of Donald Trump for the presidential election in the United States of America has brought about a shock for world politics. In particular, it also embraced important effects on regional politics in Southeast Asia. Amidst the decline of United States’ role in global politics, “Trump’s Triumph” has raised some doubts on how he might preserve the unipolarity of American “global” leadership and how it might be related with the growing fragmentation of ASEAN member states.

In this case, I argue that Trump’s triumph will bring two most possible impacts for ASEAN centrality. First, ASEAN centrality might be re-established, with the possible remaking of ‘US-China-Russia’ game –or what I shall call “global triangle”— after Trump’s election. Second, we shall witness a more defensive regionalism, which witness the re-engagement of ASEAN member states with major global power 

The Remaking of “Global Triangle” Politics?

I shall begin with the most possible scenario for US Foreign Policy under Trump. I argue that  profound relationship between Trump and Putin would strengthen an infamous thesis on the likelihood of emerging “global conflict”. The previous Trump’s campaign has shown that he rregarded Putin not as an enemy, even though the American intelligence officers have privately briefed Trump on the possible cyber-attacks to the process of US election.

It is also evident that Trump has established some business links in the Russia and, moreover, maintain a relationship with oligarch in Russia.

To some extent, according to Rob Glaser, the deep financial ties and political connection of Trump to Russian oligarchs may increased the bilateral relationship of both countries, and to some extent, hampering the political turbulence in Ukraine as well as giving much possibility for Russia to expand the legacy of Soviet Union. This situation must be cautiously vigilant by the politically distresspost-Brexit European Union.

Regarding its relationship with China, Trump in his victory’s speech underlines that the United States would double its economic growth through the engagement in international economic system. His words provide a clear groundbreaking that there would be a two-side of coins on Sino-US relations, either through mutualeconomic cooperation, or instead economic competition to become a new global hegemony.

As a rising economic power, China has higher bargaining position whether to or not to engage with the United States. However, the nationalist Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream and xenophobic Trump’s Make America Great Again will unlikely bind them into a cooperation. At this point, the ‘global triangle’ consists of China, Russia, and the United States will constitute a new volatility in international politics. I further argue that it will potentially reconfigure the prospect of future regionalism in Southeast Asia.

Effects on ASEAN Centrality

Nevertheless, how does it affects ASEAN centrality? The current situation in ASEAN has shown a fragmented condition. It is evident that Southeast Asia is currently entering the “state of crisis”, characterised by strong leaders, which is followed by the strong national interests. Evelyn Goh, for example has, argued that this ‘statist-turn’ cannot be separated from the political reality in the region, which witnessed the presence of ‘big power’ in the making of ASEAN member states’ foreign policy.

The Philippines under Duterte exemplifies this point. His foreign policy, for example, has clearly pointed out a commitment to strengthen the economic and military engagement towards China. Cambodia, Laos, and the latest Malaysia have engaged through a set of economic cooperation agreement with China. To some extent, Indonesia has much potential to engage with China in the area of maritime infrastructure and investment cooperation.

Even though Singapore remains one of the strong allies of the United States, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long declared that the winning of Trump on US presidential election will increase the reassertion of a sense of identity and somehow to change the status quo. In such circumstance, China acts as a key role in region. If China is likely to cooperate with the United States, it seems that there would be a combination of three great powers in the world in one banner.

If not, it would be likely for China to be in the middle of US-Russia’s polar while playing assertive role to its ASEAN’s strategic partner under its tribute system. For ASEAN member countries, this proves to be a risk that should be confronted by the states.

How should ASEAN Respond?

I argue that ASEAN member countries should be able to take an alternative position towards the tumultuous global politics. One for sure is to strengthen its position as a strategic regional fulcrum. Using the extra-regional diplomatic forum, such as East Asia Forum, ASEAN Regional Forum, and so on,ASEAN could voice out their single voice towards the great powers.

Rather than highly engaged under the game of ‘triangle great powers’, they may choose not to involve dependently towards each of great powers. Once again, this alternative option should be established under high political commitment along with risky economic cost.

It is then arguably that “Trump’s triumph” will exacerbate the international politics and rearrange its relationship towards China and Russia. Whether or not the three great powers will work under mutual and cooperative engagement, ASEAN has much to pay for its centrality.