How Southeast Asia’s authoritarian leaders could benefit from a Trump presidency

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: November 11, 2016 | Current Affairs

While the election of Donald Trump as the next US president has been met with shock, some authoritarian governments in the region could gain from a thinned US presence

Asean leaders participate in the cake cutting ceremony at the Asean - China Summits at the National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos, 07 September 2016.
Asean leaders participate in the cake cutting ceremony at the Asean – China Summits at the National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos, 07 September 2016. Photo: EPA/MAST IRHAM

Following the election of businessman and reality television star Donald Trump as the next US president, leaders within Southeast Asia could see an easier path to authoritarian rule, experts say.

The US has, controversially, often played the role of watchdog in Southeast Asia when it comes to human rights, criticising leaders such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for their use of heavy-handed policies and populist rhetoric.

Washington’s finger-wagging has sometimes been met with scepticism, but now the practice of the US acting as a stabilising figure in the region has been cast into doubt by the election of Trump, who advocated for an isolationist foreign policy throughout his presidential campaign.

“The clearest beneficiaries from a Trump presidency may well be rights abusing leaders in Asia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, “ranging from Cambodian and Malaysian Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Najib Razak, to Philippine President Duterte, and even North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who have all expressed their support because they think Donald Trump will toss out the practice of making human rights concerns a core element of US foreign policy.”

Already, Duterte, who has drawn flak from western leaders for his war on drugs that has claimed more than 3,000 lives, has congratulated Trump and offered to help heal the strained relationship between Manila and Washington.

“I would like to congratulate Mr Donald Trump. Long live,” Duterte said in a speech this week to the Filipino community in Kuala Lumpur during a visit to Malaysia, according to Reuters. “We are both making curses. Even with trivial matters we curse. I was supposed to stop because Trump is there. I don’t want to quarrel any more, because Trump has won.”

Tim Johnston, Asia Programme Director at International Crisis Group, said that Trump’s election has cast into doubt the US’ championing of democracy within Southeast Asia. This, Johnston said, could embolden China’s push for regional hegemony.

“It looks like a sickness at the heart of the Western democratic experiment,” Johnston said. “It’s not so much that China has gotten stronger, but America has gotten relatively weaker as a paradigm, an exemplar of how to run a country.

“A lot of Asian governments are struggling because their legitimacy is tied to their economic performance,” he continued. “And so they’re becoming more authoritarian anyway.

“[A]mericas’s attempts to say: ‘Follow us, we know what we’re doing, come down the democratic road,’ are going to be infinitely weaker.”

The anti-establishment, populist ideals at the centre of Trump’s campaign could perhaps clear the way not just for authoritarian governments, but also for disenfranchised segments of the population, according to Moe Thuzar, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“I think Trump’s electoral victory will resonate among the ultra-nationalist sentiments in this region,” she said, “which also tap into existing dissatisfactions over changes in people’s economic and social lives.

“The anti-West, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration groups will pick up Trump’s rhetoric to fit their own agendas.”