US Foreign Policy in South East Asia: There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

US Vice President Mike Pence at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta on Thursday (20/04). (Antara Photo/Sigid Kurniawan)

By : Iskandar Hadrianto | on 8:45 PM April 21, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary, Featured

United States Vice President Mike Pence's recent Asian tour proves the old adage that "there's no such things as a free lunch."

Taking into account previous talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donand Trump on the fate of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the political discourses that developed out of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to the US and their effects on the future of European security — including the future of NATO; and Chinese President Xi Jinping's talks with Trump on furthering US-China partnership, it's quite clear that US foreign policy will now be negotiated on a country-to-country basis.

Pence's visit to Jakarta, apart from being carefully geared to secure US interests in Indonesia (primarily Freeport, though this was never made public), was also meant to convince the Indonesians that the Trump administration will not leave Asean on its own devices to handle regional security.

The Americans also showed they were still eager to make more trade and investment deals with Asean countries.

In response to the escalating tension in South China Sea, Pence reiterated the importance of the SCS Code of Conduct to defuse hostility between the conflicting parties.

In the end though, Pence refused to give guarantee to Asean countries, or to Japan and South Korea, that the US will intervene directly to curb North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's belligerent maneuvers.

Pence said the US will rely on China to put pressure on North Korea to put a stop to its weekly missile tests that have severely compromised regional security arrangements.

Trump is trying to persuade China to agree to a political and security deal: in return for helping the US keep the Korean Peninsula safe, the Americans promise they will do their best to wipe out trade deficit with China.

To Japan, the US is continuing to promise security guarantees, enhancing the existing US-Japan defense agreement by including a clause that says any attempt to strike Japan using nuclear weapons would be interpreted as a direct attack on the US.

In exchange, Trump wants Japan to open more opportunities for American trade and investment.

The US president is also pushing the same deal to the Europeans. Trump has clearly stated that European countries have to start paying up for defense costs that the US has been covering on its own. In other words, Europe needs to start digging deep into its pockets if it wants to keep NATO going.

During a meeting with Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, Pence put pressure on Indonesia to open up more market access for US merchandise and investment. In return, the US will help Southeast Asia's biggest economy maintain peace and security.

To sum up, US foreign policy under Trump shows a new forthrightness that disguises the same old story: a willingness to link economic ventures with security issues. The Americans are only too happy to be a world police, but only as long as its trade and investment partners are willing to pay for it.

Iskandar Hadrianto is a foreign policy analyst. He is a former senior diplomat and official at Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A graduate of the Salzburg Diplomatic Academy and an alumni of the United Nations Leadership Academy, Iskandar has also worked for the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

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