The current U.S. Asia policy, defined in the Obama Administration as the “pivot” or rebalance, is in doubt with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Though Trump’s policy doctrine has been largely undefined, his comments have included withdrawing from major trade agreements, renegotiating alliances, removing U.S. troops overseas, and leaving Northeast Asian powers to develop their own nuclear deterrent strategy to counter North Korean threats. Southeast Asia has been absent from Trump’s commentary with the indirect exception of criticizing U.S. companies moving their manufacturing to Asia. His rumored selections for top cabinet offices, including the Departments of State and Defense, have neither experience in Asia nor have expressed strategic intent. Trump and his cabinet will likely finesse and shape its policy once they settle in and get the lay of the land; however, Southeast Asia is unlikely to receive the attention and focus it has under the Obama Administration. Many in Southeast Asia welcome the election of Trump believing that the new U.S. Administration will ease up on pressuring countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand on making progress on human rights. They also appreciate his direct messaging and share his views on nationalism. The U.S. Congress, populated with members who have been involved in the region for decades, will continue to shape policy and maintain focus on the region that, unfortunately for some, includes policy on human rights and democracy.
Asian leaders, particularly those with deep military and economic ties, have scrambled to find ways to understand and predict the trajectory of U.S. ties with the region following the surprise election of Donald Trump as president. Many Asian heads of state, particularly the so-called strongmen in Southeast Asia, quickly offered congratulations to the President elect. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went so far as to meet with Trump on November 17, saying he had a "very candid discussion" and he felt that the U.S. and Japan will be able to maintain "a relationship of trust" with Trump as president. Both Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Htin Kyaw, sent congratulatory notes. Aung San Suu Kyi expressed that she is “confident that the trust placed in you by the American people will inspire you to promote progress, peace and prosperity in the United States of America and beyond, as you lead your great nation into the future...Our people are happy with the mutually beneficial and dynamic relations that Myanmar shares with the United States.” President Htin Kyaw stated, “I firmly believe that during your tenure … the existing cordial relations and cooperation between our two countries will be further consolidated and strengthened.” President’s Office Deputy Director Zaw Htay, on November 9 stated, “The United States, throughout its history, has played a major role in Burma’s [Myanmar’s] democratic reform process. Its support, as well as that of the international community at large, will continue to play a crucial role in our democratization and national reconciliation process.”
The scope and focus of the U.S.’ relationship with Myanmar, if not the region more broadly, will take time to define, especially regarding U.S. manufacturing and production, and investing more intensely in Myanmar following the October removal of nearly all financial sanctions. Perhaps one of the first issues the Trump government may have to address are Muslim issues in Myanmar. Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists have been more encouraged by Trump’s victory, particularly by his and his proposed cabinet and senior national security officials’ comments on Muslims. The incoming Trump government has suggested establishing a Muslim registry, increasing surveillance on mosques, and undertaking “extreme vetting” on visitors from countries of concern. U Wirathu, a controversial and outspoken leader of the Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha, found a policy kinship with Trump’s campaign policies and agreement on the “dangers of Islamization.” Current Myanmar lawmakers believe that the U.S. will likely ease pressure on the Rohingya and anti-Muslim situation, noting the U.S. will not push Myanmar to review its citizenship law that prevents the Rohingya from being recognized as Myanmar citizens despite many having lived in the country for generations.
Many in Myanmar assess that their country is unlikely to feature prominently in U.S. executive branch policy, but believe the legislative will take the lead given the country’s most ardent Myanmar watchers remain in Congress. Senators McCain (R-AZ), McConnell (R-KY), Cardin (D-MD), Rubio (R-FL), Corker (R-TN), Gardner (R-CO), as well as several members of the House of Representatives, including Crowley (D-NY), Royce (R-CA), and Pelosi (D-CA), have initiated and passed legislation to promote human rights and democracy, shape bilateral military ties and foreign assistance, and limited or expanded investment. Resolutions and speeches in recent years, with bipartisan support, have called for the end of the persecution and discrimination of the Rohingya and a solution for their citizenship status. It is unclear how this priority for Congress will square with the incoming administration’s current posture on Muslims. Though the Trump government is unlikely to re-impose financial restrictions, Congress may take action that supports its longstanding defense of human rights and democratization.
More broadly, the U.S. relationship with Myanmar will likely take a hit, particularly on diplomatic and economic cooperation. Similar to the 1997 financial crisis and the Bush administration’s policy, the most senior Trump officials and the President are unlikely to join regional gatherings such as the East Asia Summit or ASEAN Regional Forum, critical gatherings for regional leaders to engage with global powers. U.S. executive branch’s absence could have medium to longer-term consequences for bilateral ties throughout the region. In previous instances, China took full advantage of U.S. absence by reinforcing the sentiment that Asia’s largest power would always be there for the region and not be distracted by domestic intrigue. China will likely do so again, as will Japan, a country which has been actively increasing its economic engagement in Southeast Asia to boost its economy, while countering Chinese influence. This has been especially visible with China and Japan vying for both Aung San Suu Kyi and military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s attention. Both countries have made significant overtures through financial assistance and exchanges and this competition is likely to ramp up in the short to medium term. This may be appreciated by Myanmar in the short term, especially by those that have borne the brunt of U.S. criticism on human rights and backsliding on democratization and ties to assistance and investment. The U.S. may lose leverage in Myanmar, particularly on human rights issues, as its perceived abandonment will undermine U.S. credibility to provide consistent support and reliable engagement. Congress is likely to be more focused on human rights challenges, especially on anti-Muslim and Rohingya issues, but may be undermined in efforts to address these issues if the executive branch’s domestic and foreign policies run counter to protecting Muslims. U.S. businesses may be hesitant to enter the Myanmar market in the short-term as well, despite the lifting of financial restrictions, given strong anti-globalization sentiment. However, businesses may feel less constrained with less oversight and impact on reputational concerns, easing concerns of entering a difficult frontier market.
It would appear that the U.S. government’s rebalance to Asia is effectively over. However, the country’s ties to the region have been built over several decades and as many a U.S. president has noted, America is a Pacific nation. Any efforts to further ties will be left to the private sector by means of investment, cooperation, and collaboration cultivated by businesses, academia, foundations, and non-government organizations. While U.S. engagement in the region will certainly be redefined, abandonment is far from certain.