US-ASEAN engagement has remained vibrant in 2017. Bilateral exchanges and high-level engagement from both sides signal amiable foreign policies in calibration. Since April, the US has sent top officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. Just ten months into his Presidency, Donald Trump has met five ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore, and three of them have made a visit to the White House.
President Trump’s visit to Asia — in which he will visit China, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Vietnam — has been reckoned as “the longest to the region by any US president in the past 25 years.” While the North Korean threat and regional security issues remain at the top of the agenda, the Trump administration seeks to reaffirm its Asian alliances and has vowed to seek reciprocal economic ties with its trade partners in the Asia-Pacific region. More trade talks and discussions about market penetration for US companies and US-produced goods are thus to be expected in the lengthy trip. This underlines the continuity of American presence in the region and the US’ intention of getting back in the game in the Asia-Pacific. As the US tries to woo the region for more deals and investments, some ASEAN leaders are supporting Trump’s economic agenda by agreeing to pour more investment into the US to help create more employment opportunities for Americans.
One commonality in ASEAN leaders’ visits to the US was their economic pitch — to address their trade deficits and to sign more bilateral deals. During his visit to the US in May, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc promised deals in “US high technology goods and services worth USD 15 billion to USD 17 billion” and to address the outstanding US trade deficit with Vietnam. Thailand’s prime minister and junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha who had strained relations with the previous US administration of Barack Obama found common ground with President Donald Trump during his visit to the US in October, resulting in a business deal with Boeing and agreements on security-related issues. Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s arrival in Washington in September saw the signing of a USD 20 billion deal with Boeing while a visit by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in October likewise “witnessed the signing of an agreement between Singapore Airlines and aircraft manufacturer Boeing to buy 39 aeroplanes, worth close to USD 14 billion.”
In order to woo trade and investment from Asia, “the Trump administration has tempered long-time American criticism of poor human rights records or corruption allegations.” As US forges closer relations with leaders from Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines, Trump was said to have “barrelled through criticism about outreach to authoritarian foreign leaders.”
During his Asian visit, President Trump will attend the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit that involves more nations. This is a sign that Trump is eager to host bilateral talks with individual countries to push for more balanced trade relations and to carve out better deals. Trump’s embrace of bilateralism suggests the US is tapping on its strategic and economic heft for greater leverage and to capture greater benefits in one-on-one trade agreements with other nations.