YANGON - Despite a fresh push by President Donald Trump's administration to reach out to Southeast Asia, a new poll suggests that confidence in the relationship is at a low point.
Titled “How do Southeast Asians view the Trump administration?” the online survey was compiled by the Singapore-based ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The center received more than 300 responses last month from a variety of government officials, civil society members, business leaders, academics and journalists in ASEAN.
Roughly 43 percent of respondents said the Trump administration was “not interested” in Southeast Asia, compared to 37 percent who said it was interested. Similar numbers (around 43 percent) said they expected U.S. engagement with the region to decrease and that the U.S. was “undependable” as an ally compared to four months ago.
The Trump administration has sought to allay these concerns with a barrage of outreach. Late last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted, for the first time, foreign ministers and senior officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington, DC.
The visitors took part in discussions on trade, North Korea and the South China Sea. They even went to a baseball game.
The first 100 days of the Trump administration have been marked by a lack of engagement with a region that enjoyed strong ties with U.S. President Barack Obama under his “pivot to the Asia” policy. With the invite, Tillerson intended to change that perception.
“The secretary underscored that the region remains a very important partner for the United States, in fact a strategic partner,” W. Patrick Murphy, the deputy assistant secretary for the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a May 4 briefing.
Before the gathering Trump invited the leaders of Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines to the White House, and his presence is expected at two regional summits in November.
But confidence is so low that only 10 percent of survey respondents think Trump will “definitely” attend the summits, while 38 percent think his attendance is likely and 32 percent say it is unlikely.
While the ASEAN Studies Centre stressed the responses do not reflect the views of a region in which 600 million people live, the results are hardly encouraging.
The head of the centre, Dr. Tang Siew Mun, said in an email the fact that the Trump administration was viewed poorly in the region was expected, but what was surprising was the “degree and intensity” of the negative perceptions.
“The survey shows an obvious lack of confidence in the U.S. and its dependability as an ally has also taken a beating. The region has a gloomy view on the present and future ties between U.S. and Southeast Asia,” he wrote.
But he cautioned that the survey should not be seen as a repudiation of the U.S. in the region, but as a call for more engagement from Washington.
“On the contrary, it is a strong statement of the region’s disappointment in the disinterest shown by the Trump administration. This is not a clarion call of ‘Yankee go home!’ Quite the opposite.”
It should come as no surprise that with a perceived lack of engagement from the U.S., China looms large. While 44 percent of respondents agree that Southeast Asia is “more stable and secure with active U.S. engagement,” more than 51 percent said the U.S. has lost strategic ground to China since Trump took over, and more than 73 percent said that China is the most influential country in Southeast Asia. A paltry 3.5 percent said the U.S. held the title.
Most of the answers came from Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam, though all 10 countries in ASEAN were represented.
One of the countries, Myanmar, also known at Burma, has been at the heart of concerns that the U.S. is not doing enough in the region. Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend the meeting last week in Washington, sending her national security adviser with a letter for Tillerson instead.
Both governments said her absence was merely a result of conflicting schedules – she was in Europe, where she visited Brussels before moving on to a meeting with the Pope and then lunch with the Queen of England – but the no-show hinted at the different treatment Myanmar received under Obama, who visited the country twice and invited Aung San Suu Kyi to the White House, something Trump has yet to publicly do.
Soe Myint Aung, an analyst with the Yangon-based Tagaung Institute for Political Studies, said while it can take time for new leaders to establish a connection, both sides do not seem to be in a hurry.
“The gut feeling is that there is a mutual disinterest between the Trump administration and Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “So for President Trump it is not only for Burma, but also for Southeast Asia as a region, he has not shown so much interest in having diplomatic relations or having more communication. And on the side of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, I think she is mainly preoccupied and busy with having good relations with European countries. So U.S. doesn’t seem to be a priority right now.”