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Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations

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US President Donald Trump and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deliver joint statements to reporters in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US, 23 October 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst).

In Brief

In the wake of three Southeast Asian prime ministers’ visits to the Trump White House, a new pattern of diplomatic communication appears to be taking shape — transactional diplomacy.

It is well known that the election of Donald Trump triggered a wave of privately expressed unease in many Asian capitals.


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Trump’s inauguration speech spelt out the cornerstone of his foreign policy in simple terms: ‘We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first’. In the course of three recent visits by the leaders of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to Washington, President Trump has demonstrated consistency in applying these rules.

What one sees emerging out of the Trump White House is nothing less than transactional leadership translated into foreign policy. Leaders produce compliance from followers by promising tangible carrots and sticks. In managerial settings, this is remarkably effective since followers expect the leader to specify clear key performance targets against which the former can measure their productivity. But in the world of international politics, transactional foreign policy may be complicated to the point of possible failure.

The problem with Trump’s foreign policy is that he takes his ‘America First’ policy too seriously. This has triggered a peculiar foreign policy overture manifested in the visits by the Malaysian, Thai and Singaporean prime ministers to the White House recently: shopping diplomacy.

During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit, he made it clear to the media that he was bringing a ‘strong value proposition’ to the United States. It was announced that Khazanah Nasional (the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund) and the Employees Provident Fund (Malaysia’s national pension fund) would invest several billion dollars in equity and infrastructure projects in the United States. Additionally, Malaysia Airlines was pledged to actively explore options for acquiring more Boeing jetliners and General Electric engines to the tune of US$10 billion.

Not to be outdone, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had an even longer shopping list to please Trump. Prayut promised that the Thai military would acquire Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, a Cobra gunship, Harpoon missiles and F-16 fighter jet upgrades to be topped off with 20 new Boeing jetliners for Thai Airways.

Next, in an obvious nod to Trump’s championing of the plight of US workers in the much bandied ‘Rust Belt’, Siam Cement Group agreed to purchase 155,000 tonnes of coal while Thai petroleum company PTT agreed to invest in shale gas factories in Ohio. To top it off, Prayut and Trump signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate an estimated US$6 billion worth of investments that will purportedly generate more than 8000 jobs in the United States.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong followed a similar script by showcasing Singapore Airlines’ publicly televised signing ceremony with Boeing Corporation for buying 39 aircraft with the attached tagline of generating 70,000 jobs in the continental United States. It did not go unnoticed that Trump smiled broadly and jabbed jocularly at the Boeing CEO while uttering very audibly to the television cameras ‘that’s jobs, American jobs, otherwise don’t sign!’.

Trump was not fooling around for the media. He meant to live up to his ‘America First’ rhetoric. Yet one hopes that Trump and his cabinet appreciate that shopping transactions do not define a whole bilateral relationship. Each of the prime ministers had also sought Trump’s friendship for multiple ancillary issues such as keeping US markets open to their businesses or getting a lift for domestic politics.

All three countries too wished to keep the US military engaged in the region as a stabilising factor vis-a-vis the emergence of Chinese power. In the Malaysian and Singaporean cases, both countries share with the United States a clear joint stake in the defeat of Islamic State-inspired terrorism worldwide. In the Southeast Asian strategic mentality, diplomatic relationships are always viewed in the long term. With or without President Trump in the White House, the United States is a naturalised political, economic and military presence in the region.

Another time-honoured diplomatic virtue practised by Southeast Asian governments is that of making gifts as a material representation of friendship. Gifts need not be a sign of surrender or weakness on the part of the giver. They are an indirect language for affirming respect despite political inequalities between great powers and weak states, and they signal the durability of strategic partnerships painstakingly built up since the Cold War.

Southeast Asian states will be more than well-rehearsed for this chapter in US–Southeast Asia relations. Many pundits are also speculating that China will also follow the same tack by decorating President Trump’s upcoming official visit to Beijing with even more dazzling multi-billion dollar energy and high tech deals. Today, diplomacy by gifting has found a new frequency in the Trump White House.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was originally published here on RSIS.

One response to “Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations”

  1. Thanks to Prof. Chong for this “comprehensive” identification of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations, by painstakingly featuring US trade deals with ASEAN’s Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. For the benefit of readers, let’s mention the preceding WH visit and subsequent Trump deal on May 31, 2017 with its #1 ASEAN trader: Vietnam (2016 = 53 billions,projected 2017 = 57 billions), #1 deficit (2016 = 32 billions, projected 2018 = 33 billions), #1 America 1st and largest written contract (17 billions for Boeing, GE, UT…). An ASEAN member since 1995, Vietnam is the 1st point of arrival for Trump at APEC Summit’s Da Nang coastal town, 1st state visit to an ASEAN nation for the US president, the longest stay of his 11-day tour of Asia and if all smart political pundits are right – Vietnam clearly, is the most outspoken invitee who “wished to keep the US military engaged in the region as a stabilising factor vis-a-vis the emergence of Chinese power.” And if prof. Chong is not 1 of those 20,000 visitors flocking to Vietnam this week, let me predict that Trump will announce. while in Vietnam that “shopping transactions do not define a whole bilateral relationship” and ” keeping US markets open to their businesses or getting a lift for domestic politics.”…

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