AMERICA’s global image and credibility lost some of its shine in Southeast Asia after US President Donald Trump took office, a recent survey by ASEAN Focus has found.
According to the Singapore-based monthly publication, this was further exacerbated by Trump’s recent declaration of support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which many said effectively meant the US president was endorsing the Southeast Asian leader’s brutal war on drugs.
When asked for their views on the US’s image today compared to four months ago, 71.7 percent of respondents told ASEAN Focus it either deteriorated (46.3 percent) or deteriorated immensely (25.4 percent).
The majority of respondents at 64.3 percent also said the US cannot be relied on to uphold free trade, human rights and international law in the region.
Over half at 54.3 percent said the US’s reliability as an ally to the region decreased when Trump took power. Only 16.2 percent said they were still confident of future ties while 29.5 percent said they saw no obvious changes over the past few months.
According to ASEAN Focus, apart from Trump’s friendship with Duterte, the clear slide in confidence was likely also due to the leader’s move to withdraw US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
In a series of phone calls with world leaders after winning the US presidency late last year, it emerged that Trump praised Duterte for “doing great” in his deadly campaign against drugs.
Duterte, preening after the call, reportedly said the conversation left him feeling like “a saint”.
He claimed Trump told him not to worry about Americans criticising him over his unorthodox crime-busting methods and that if he were to visit the US, they should go for coffee.
It wasn’t the only time Duterte earned praise from the controversial US president.
Last month, Trump applauded Duterte’s work once again and this time, invited the Filipino leader to the White House.
The invitation unleashed a storm of protests against Washington, with rights activists asking if it meant the US was endorsing the thousands of deaths reported so far in the Philippines’ drug war.
The White House, however, defended the invitation, saying while it recognises human rights as an important issue, Washington also needed allies in the region to address the growing threat of North Korea’s weapons programme.
According to the ASEAN Focus survey, however, despite the exchange, there is “hardly any optimism” among Southeast Asians on the prospect of more US engagement with the region under the Trump Administration.
Some 56.3 percent of respondents said they expect engagement to ease off, while 17.4 percent said they hope for an uptick in such engagement and 26.3 percent said they don’t expect changes.
“This lack of confidence is attributed to the low visibility of Southeast Asia during the first 100 days of the Trump Administration which has not offered any public announcements on the region except in the context of the South China Sea and bilateral trade balances.
“Furthermore, there had been no visits by high-level US officials to Southeast Asia before Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Jakarta and the ASEAN Secretariat on April 20,” an analysis of the survey’s findings said.
The South China Sea dispute is the only issue where the US could hope to find some measure of redemption.
Much of the region (67.9 percent) has “high expectations” that the US will continue upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
This, said ASEAN Focus, could be due to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s strong rhetoric on the issue during his confirmation hearing in January, as well as the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group in the South China Sea in February.
The online survey conducted from April 10 to 23 using the purposive sampling method drew 318 respondents from governments, business, academia, think tanks, the media and civil society across 10 Asean member states, namely Burma (49), the Philippines (49), Vietnam (47), Malaysia (42), Indonesia (33), Singapore (29), Thailand (26), Cambodia (20), Brunei Darussalam (18) and Laos (5).
The results of the survey are not reflective of the views of all of Southeast Asia.