Value-based vs. Transactional Approach: Which One is Better for Southeast Asia?

There are many ways in assessing countries’ behaviors in dealing with other countries as well as both national and international issues. Value-based and transactional approaches are just two of several ways in determining the behavior of a country in international politics. The two approaches are not new in the International realm–in fact, these approaches are always included in politics. This article will emphasize which approach is predominant and better for Southeast Asia. The value-based approach is a strategy that estimates and prioritizes the values upheld by counterparts as well as (countries) themselves. The transactional approach, on the other hand, is a strategy that sets the importance of fair exchange (mutual interests); no matter the differences among the parties.

These two approaches are unlikely to juxtapose one another. President Obama and president Trump are tangible examples of how two leaders illustrate different approaches in order to exercise their foreign policies and achieve their interests. Bear in mind that although Trump just held office the past year, the tendency of his foreign policies is quite clear—especially when comparing them with the previous leaders', particularly towards Southeast Asia.

There are many lenses to see how both Presidents exercise their foreign policy agendas. Southeast Asia acts as one of the lenses in seeing the relevance of the region to United States (US) foreign policy for the past decades. As Manju Jain wrote in his 2016 article "The Obama Administration and Southeast Asia: Dynamics of a New Engagement", Ronald Reagan viewed Southeast Asia as irrelevant and only as a battleground since the US focused on the Soviet Union as the main threat. However, the region’s significance to the US increased after the Vietnam and Cold wars ended, plus became one of the priorities after the 9/11 tragedy in New York; it increased the relevance of Southeast Asia considering the region also has a large Muslim population, which raised the Bush administration's attention, declaring Southeast Asia as the second front for Bush’s “War on Terror” policy. Southeast Asia became vital to the US under Obama’s administration ever since.

Southeast Asia was once neglected by the US until Obama’s took office back in 2008, prioritizing the region by engaging numerous conferences to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region including Southeast Asia–known as ‘The US Pivot to Asia’. Under Obama, the US was the first non-Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) country to established a permanent representative in the ASEAN Secretariat. They not only engaged with Southeast Asia countries bilaterally but also maximized existing multilateral partnerships, and talks, namely the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and ASEAN Plus summits to engage with Southeast Asian countries.

Before Obama's term ended, the idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) occurred as a tangible action to increase its presence and engagement in Asia-Pacific. Additionally, referring to National Security Strategy 2015, it mentioned that the TPP is crucial towards US efforts in Southeast Asia. Obama’s actions and speeches showed just how important the values upheld by the US were. He mentioned the importance of freedom of navigation, rule of law, and human rights for the US under Obama; and he often used ‘we’ in his speeches, which showed the importance to cooperate collectively, not as individual entities. Therefore, it infers that Obama is tilting toward a value-based approach when dealing with issues.

Contrarily, Trump’s strategy during his first year as President is the opposite of Obama’s. His “America First” policy leads him to make uncertain and contradictory statements and actions. He often mentioned during his campaign the necessity of fair exchange when it comes to cooperation and agreements–leading him to withdraw from the TPP as he believes it will damage the US economy and will only be disadvantageous, especially to tax-payers. Instead, he wanted to mainstream the Indo-Pacific idea, currently changing its command from Asia-Pacific. He also mentioned that he did not want the US to be the "policemen of the world". This transactional approach of Trump might diminish Southeast Asian countries’ trust towards the US.

The US approach towards Southeast Asia is also changing; Trump prefers to act bilaterally instead of multilaterally because it tends to gain more leverage without sacrificing. It also driven by the fact that the US puts serious concern on the Korean Peninsula Crisis. The Indo-Pacific idea is an initiative proposed by Trump to connect the Pacific and Indian oceans as an umbrella to boost development in the region. He projects his image globally by using the word ‘I’ and ‘the US’ in his speeches, emphasizing how the US wants to use a more "direct approach" in order to discuss issues with other countries. Therefore, Trump’s actions and policies are tilting toward a more transaction-based approach.

According to the Coordinating Minister of Marine Affairs of Indonesia, Luhut Pandjaitan, if the US can put aside its values in order to achieve greater goals and work with all countries, it would be beneficial for Asia (Indonesia in particular, considering the size of its population, lands, and economy). However, Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, is concerned over the uncertainties of the US in the region and is stating the necessity to project its constructive presence and commitment in the region. The nature of Southeast Asian politics also needs to be put into consideration ever since ASEAN centrality has been critical to the region. However, there is a chance that Trump’s approach might be better, considering that he will not enforce US upheld values and as long as it can protect the US plus achieve mutual interests.  

Both approaches are very common in the realm of international politics; in politics, values and transactions are important. These two approaches that were used by the two US Presidents, however, cannot juxtapose one another on which is more dominant.  The examples above show how the two Presidents exercise their policy agendas in Southeast Asia and how they project their images through different approaches. This article highlights the differences between both administrations. Thus, how should Southeast Asian countries react and which one is better for Southeast Asia?