Although President Donald Trump has not conceded the United States presidential election and is mounting multiple dubious legal challenges to the results, President-elect Joe Biden is moving ahead with the transition. While Biden did not focus on Southeast Asia during his time as vice president from 2009 until 2017, he probably has more extensive foreign policy experience than any incoming president in decades, save perhaps George H. W. Bush. In addition, his policy team includes a deep bench of experts on the Asia-Pacific region.
When it comes to Biden’s approach to Southeast Asia, persistent tensions in the U.S. relationship with China are a major factor. While perhaps less openly confrontational toward China than Trump has been, many of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy experts have become much more distrustful of Beijing in recent years and convinced that the United States’ previous strategies have failed. The incoming Biden administration probably will recognize that, to pursue a tough approach against China, the U.S. cannot afford to alienate critical partners in Southeast Asia, the way the Trump administration has done. Biden is also likely to reinvest in some areas of American power that were neglected under Trump, from diplomacy to a renewed focus on nontraditional security threats like climate change, which will appeal to Southeast Asian states.
Many countries in the region are growing more distrustful of China as well, given its increasingly aggressive behavior and its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, but Southeast Asia cannot divorce itself from Beijing. China is the region’s biggest trading partner and the largest aid donor to several Southeast Asian states. Still, countries like Singapore and Vietnam, and even to some extent Malaysia and Indonesia, have grown increasingly concerned about China’s heavy-handed approach to the region and have quietly applauded some of the Trump administration’s tough measures toward Beijing.
As president, Biden’s approach to the region will in some respects resemble Trump’s. He likely will continue to rebalance the U.S. military toward the Asia-Pacific, boosting regional military cooperation with allies in the region and continuing to harden U.S. defenses and those of its allies. Like Trump, Biden will also need to find ways to counter Chinese influence activities in the U.S. and elsewhere, and will continue pressuring other countries to keep Chinese firms like Huawei out of their new 5G telecommunications networks, though he will have less success with this strategy in Asia than in Europe.
Yet Biden might diverge in how he tries to attract other countries to support his China policy. Trump’s trade disputes with many Southeast Asian countries made it harder for them to align with Washington on other issues. For example, the Trump administration repeatedly criticized Vietnam for its high trade surplus with the United States and is investigating Vietnam for currency manipulation. It also recently suspended duty-free access for some $800 million in Thai imports because Thailand has not opened up enough to U.S. agriculture, and seemed to threaten tough trade action against Indonesia earlier this year if it bought weapons from Russia and China. (Indonesia caved and did not follow through with the purchases.)
While some of these trade-related complaints may have merit, the Biden administration will probably want to ease the pressure on Southeast Asia when it comes to trade policy. It will likely go easier on Vietnam and Indonesia, both of which are important security partners for the U.S., and on Thailand, a treaty ally. After all, to court Southeast Asian states that are caught between the United States and China, it makes little sense to also tighten the trade screws on these very same countries.
Southeast Asian leaders can expect a more conventional and engaged approach to the region from the incoming Biden administration.
Beyond its dealings with individual countries, Biden’s overall approach to trade and investment in the region might be constrained by domestic politics. Trump won election in 2016 while railing against giant multilateral trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he withdrew from as soon as he took office. Subsequently, he focused primarily on bilateral trade agreements, even as East Asian countries forged ahead with major regional deals like the reconstituted TPP, now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
It will be difficult for Biden to reengage with Asia’s regional trade integration efforts in a meaningful way. Major segments of the U.S. population are skeptical of new trade deals, perhaps even more than in 2016, when even Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in that year’s election, disavowed the TPP, a deal she had once praised. Moreover, Biden will likely enter office with Republicans in control of the Senate—unless the Democrats somehow manage to sweep both Senate seats in Georgia that will be decided in runoffs in January. Even with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, though, Biden will have little political capital to expend on trade.
We can also expect a renewed U.S. focus on nontraditional security issues under Biden, which are important in Southeast Asia. While the Trump administration has mostly eschewed multilateral cooperation on COVID-19, Biden has pledged to work more closely with other countries on strategies to contain the pandemic. Since some countries in Southeast Asia, like Thailand and Vietnam, have had the most successful responses to COVID-19, the new administration could seek out their guidance. More broadly, Biden has tasked his new administration with broadening the definition of national security to include not only public health, but also climate change and other issues. That shift will be welcomed in Southeast Asia, one of the regions of the world most endangered by rising sea levels.
In tackling these challenges, simply picking up the phone or dispatching low-level envoys won’t be enough. Southeast Asian leaders value face time from their counterparts. Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, made it a priority to regularly attend Southeast Asia’s most high-profile summits, barring a few instances when pressing domestic crises prevented him from traveling. Trump at first continued this policy, making a long trip to East Asia during his first year in office to attend key regional gatherings, but U.S. delegations to subsequent meetings were headed by lower-level officials, offending some Southeast Asian leaders. Biden will probably show up in the region more often, and he already has named several officials with Asia experience to top posts in the new administration.
Trump also left key national security posts unfilled across the State Department and the Pentagon. The Biden administration will likely take a more professionalized approach and move to fill many of those positions, including a deeper bench of senior and mid-level officials who deal with issues related to Southeast Asia.
When it comes to human rights issues and democracy promotion in Southeast Asia, Trump has shown only modest interest, consistent with his overall foreign policy approach. In fairness, the Trump White House has taken a tougher approach to Myanmar and Cambodia. But Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs and built closer ties with Thailand, despite a highly questionable election in 2019 and the government’s repression of pro-democracy protests. The Trump administration also invited Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto for a visit to Washington, despite longstanding allegations of atrocities committed by troops under Prabowo’s command when he led Indonesia’s notorious special forces.
Southeast Asian countries would do well to temper their expectations. After all, Biden’s focus when he first takes office will be on containing the pandemic and boosting the struggling U.S. economy, all while trying to navigate Washington’s partisan gridlock. But overall, they can expect a more conventional and engaged approach to the region, in an effort to soothe tensions at a time when Biden will have many fires to put out at home and elsewhere in the world.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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