BANGKOK — US President Donald Trump did not show up at the Asean Summit and related summits last month in Bangkok.
Local media and many observers viewed his absence as evidence of the US wavering in its commitment to Asia, especially Asean.
Prior to the Asean Summit, the US had announced suspension of trade privileges worth US$1.3 billion under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme for Thai products. The move reinforced the notion of US indifference towards Thailand and Asean, especially when compared with China’s strong commitment to the regions via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who led American business leaders to participate in the second Indo-Pacific Business Forum held on the sidelines of the Asean Summit, however, reaffirmed US’ strong commitment to Asia through the Indo-Pacific vision of Trump.
He cited many statistics to show the US is serious about cooperation with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes India and Asean.The list of new US deals in the Indo-Pacific compiled by the US Department of Commerce is long.
For example, since July 2018, the US Department of Commerce has assisted more than 9,000 US companies to do business in the Indo-Pacific region and facilitated more than US$7.65 billion in US exports, of which, US$3.1 billion was for government tenders won by US firms.The Department also assisted over 2,500 Indo-Pacific companies seeking to invest in the United States, facilitating US$18 billion in inward investment into the US from the Indo-Pacific.Ross and other senior officials tried to present the image of a free and open Indo-Pacific led by the US private sector, which contrasted China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that is largely led by China’s state enterprises.
The US sees a debt trap in China’s BRI projects, while its projects are more transparent and market-driven, which could get rid of potential unproductive projects and mountain of debts from investment in poorly designed large projects. The US also has reorganized its institutions to drive the Indo-Pacific vision.
Launched in 2018, Asia Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy (EDGE) is a US governmental effort to grow sustainable and secure energy markets throughout the Indo-Pacific. Asia EDGE seeks to strengthen energy security by increasing energy access, diversification, and trade, according to the US statement. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the US government’s development finance institution, prepares to transform into a new, modernized agency called the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
Equipped with more than double the investment cap of US$60 billion and new financial tools, DFC will have more resources to invest in priority regions such as the Indo-Pacific and expanded flexibility to collaborate with key partners on the shared goals including quality infrastructure investment, according to the US.Adam Boehler, first chief executive officer of DFC, said Australia and Japan have already become partners with DFC. He hopes that Thailand, Malaysia and other Asean countries will also join later.
The US, Japan and Australia have created the so-called Blue Dot Network concept, with the aim to advance infrastructure investment and provide a globally recognised seal of approval for high-quality infrastructure projects. Despite Trump skipping the Asean Summit in early November, prominent Thai academics are convinced that the US government is still committed to Thailand and the region.
“Ross is the most powerful cabinet member in the Trump administration, Ross visiting Thailand demonstrates US’ strong commitment,” said Sompop Manarungsan, President of the Panyapiwat Institute of Management.Ross was a former fund manager who helped Trump rescue his casino business, therefore Ross is very close to Trump, he explained.
On November 17, the US and Thailand signed a new defense alliance treaty. A statement by the US Embassy said that the interoperable and compatible arrangement between the US Department of Defense and the Thai Ministry of Defence would participate actively with other allies and like-minded partners to address security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.“As demonstrated by a 65-year defense alliance, the United States and Thailand are stronger together,” the US embassy statement said.Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, also believed that this demonstrates the US commitment to Thailand as the Kingdom and Washington have long cooperated on defence.
The US has high stakes in the South China Sea and it has asserted its right to free passage on international sea lanes. China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory while other countries around the sea oppose China’s claim. There are also potential rich petroleum resources in the sea, which may be among other factors to keep the US active in the region.
In response to both China’s and US initiatives, Kalin Sarasin, chairman of Thai Chamber of Commerce, said that businesses could take advantage of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, whether via the BRI or the US Indo-Pacific vision. The latest proactive US move on Asia is President Trump signing the Hong Kong human rights and democracy bill into law, which will allow the US government to impose sanctions on those who abuse human rights in Hong Kong.Indeed intensified recent activities point to strong US commitment to the region.
Trump initiated the Indo-Pacific vision in November 2017, apparently to counter China’s rising influence. He also launched a trade war with China and currently trade negotiations between the world’s two largest economies is still going on.
As the US pushes hard on its Indo-Pacific strategy, it remains to be seen how the complexity of the relationship among super powers and all countries in the region would evolve.