Waning US influence on ASEAN?

Donald Trump won the presidential elections by severely criticising Barack Obama for opportunities lost in the foreign affairs department. Trump lamented how the US lost its previous position as the world’s “top cop,” a role which the North American power thinks it had after the Berlin wall collapsed and Bush instigated a war on terror in the Middle East. Voters heard Trump and elected him into office.

Now, more than six months as President of the greatest power on earth, and the US remains helpless in influencing its allies in the Asia-Pacific. The fact is, its rival China, is the one calling the shots now.

Two years ago, no one would dare think that China would ever put its weight down on ASEAN member-states. Inspite of increased Chinese economic power over the region, it was unthinkable that the Sinos had also influenced the thinking of smaller powers comprising ASEAN. For one, fellow Communist state Vietnam had stood taller than others when it continues to engage China over Spratlys. Vietnam had even engaged China militarily and the possibility of another engagement remains.

Two years ago too, the Philippines was standing tall against China. The Philippines competed with China in terms of economic development. It did not engage China on military terms, yet, the Philippine government succeeded in getting international support over its claims at the West Philippine sea.

Now, under a new administration, the Philippine pivot had given its allies and even the US, severe headaches. Duterte had publicly announced his decision to pivot towards China and Russia, a move that puzzled many since traditionally the Philippines is seen as a strong US ally like how Singapore is perceived.

Duterte justified the move by praising China’s support behind his bloody anti-drugs war and China’s decision to flood the Philippines with billions of dollars for Duterte’s infrastructure projects. It seems rational yet, many sectors are also opposing Duterte’s moves saying that those billions are actually loans which could prove disastrous in the end for the Philippines.

The US tries to regain its previous status by giving military assistance to the Philippines in its war on terror. One of the key regional concerns is the possibility of terrorism spilling over part of Southeast Asia. If the Philippines fails to contain the threat within its borders, the possibility of destabilizing other ASEAN member-states remains.

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