Politics and International Relations
The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from multilateral agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear framework has created a void with global reverberations. With the erosion of the existing multilateral rules-based system, there is a growing opportunity for various assertive regional players to promote a new set or custom-made regional rules which will strengthen their relevance and consequently limit the U.S. global sway. Due to their undeniable strategic relevance, Southeast Asian nations face choices about whether to move forward in narrower multilateral agreements without the U.S. or to seek bilateral agreements with the U.S. and other regional players on a broad array of issues. Economic, social and political factors within the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations will influence these decisions. Reflecting on these developments, the intention of this panel is threefold. It will explore the ongoing strategic and security challenges in the region in light of a changing U.S. approach to multilateralism, and offer ideas how the existing and future conflicts may be best managed. Secondly, it will address the Trump Administration’s retreat from multilateralism as a broad-based swipe at collectivism. Although rhetoric used to support the new policy (“better deal,” “level the playing the field”) would suggest support for equitable bargaining, Trump’s attempts to weaken pathways for collective empowerment domestically demonstrate the inverse. Simultaneous developments in Southeast Asia (from attempts by Thai corporations to file criminal defamation charges against workers who draw attention to unfair labor practices to the Vietnamese government’s decision to flaunt its newly invigorated reliance on coal) indicate a potential emboldening of authoritarian, anti-collective action given cover by U.S. absence from multilateral frameworks. Yet, a scan of political and popular culture occurrences in both regions demonstrate a growing call to collective action to counter this reversal. Finally, the panel will address the impact of U.S. increasing political disengagement from the region on SE Asia’s democratic development. After a period of democratic expansion beginning in the 1990’s, Southeast Asia has experienced regression in recent years due to a variety of domestic and regional factors. One factor is the decline in U.S. multilateral engagement, and overall influence, in Asia, hastened by an America First agenda under Trump. The result is an absence of a powerful democratic model and champion, and a potential increase in human rights abuses and internal restiveness, threatening internal and regional stability.