ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Braces for US Elections and a Possible Second Trump Term

A Biden victory will see a rebooting of U.S. ties with ASEAN, but the region will still be seen through the lens of competition with China.

Luke Hunt
Southeast Asia Braces for US Elections and a Possible Second Trump Term

Joe Biden, then vice president, greets sailors on board the littoral combat ship USS Freedom on July 27, 2013, during the vessel’s maiden deployment to Singapore.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

Southeast Asian leaders will be casting a wary eye over next week’s election in the United States, in which President Donald Trump is trailing challenger Joe Biden in the opinion polls, holding out the prospect of a Democrat administration that will spearhead improved relations with the region over the next four years.

Indonesia-based independent analyst Keith Loveard said a Biden victory would see a return to diplomacy “as we knew it” under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, but that it would take a while “to get a gutted Department of State back to full complement.”

Hundreds of key vacancies in the State Department have not been filled under Trump. The administration argues that this was aimed at streamlining the bureaucracy, but its critics claim this was simply a hollowing out that sharply reduced U.S. capabilities abroad.

Should Biden win, a resurrection of Obama era policies would mark a return to the Asia-Pacific military-trade “pivot,” a bolstering of security ties with the Indo-Pacific region and possibly a revival of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

That would impact directly on the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which, according to Loveard, would “probably breathe a sigh of relief not to have to deal with Trump’s idiosyncrasies.”

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The TPP was the centerpiece of Obama’s “pivot,” incorporating 11 Pacific Rim countries into the world’s largest free trade pact. It covered around 40 percent of the global economy and excluded China and India, irritating both nations. Trump ditched the trade pact after coming to office in 2017.

Loveard’s sentiments were echoed by Todd Elliot, a security analyst with Concord Consulting in Jakarta, who added Trump that had paid little attention to Southeast Asia, particularly Washington’s traditional allies in the region, and had ruffled feathers by failing to attend most major ASEAN summits and meetings.

“There appears to be a general fatigue among nations in Southeast Asia to the current U.S. administration’s erratic style of foreign policy,” Elliot said.

Southeast Asian countries would continue to feel the impact of U.S.-China rivalry as tensions in the South China Sea intensify, he added, regardless of which candidate wins on November 3.

Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with A2 Global Risk, a Hong Kong-based security consultancy, also said Southeast Asia had been largely ignored by Trump “beyond a few walk-on roles,” such as the choice of Singapore as a venue for the photo-op meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“A second Trump term is highly unlikely to see his administration elevating Southeast Asia much beyond a colorful backdrop for the president to perform to his domestic base, through the prism of U.S.-China ties,” he said.

Greenwood added a Biden presidency would revive U.S. involvement in the region, in large part through the return of professional diplomats to the State Department, who were sidelined or “had chosen not to add time spent in the Trump-era foreign service to their CVs.”

“In either case, Southeast Asia will be viewed from across the Pacific as an adjunct to Washington’s either bellicose or more accommodating China policy,” he said.

It’s a type of argument that Kamarulnizam Abdullah, Professor in National Security at Universiti Utara Malaysia, says could spell trouble for the next four years

“I have a very pessimistic view, whoever wins the U.S. presidential election,” he said. “The American position in Asia has already been weakened by Trump. If he wins again, the U.S. will have a tough time in commanding respect among Asian countries. His fireball salvo and inconsistent policies against China cannot bring back an American respected position in Asia.

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“He berated regional leaders, his anti-Islam speech, will not help either. It fact, he is a liability on Asia’s containment strategy against China’s expansion.”

Kamarulnizam said that under Biden, the China-containment strategy would continue through the Indo-Pacific strategy, but he added that Southeast Asian countries were uncomfortable with the perceived Cold War divide, which implies a choice between the U.S. and China.

“Biden needs to re-engage with Asia to regain some respect,” he said. “In fact the region is comfortable working with China despite having long standing issues over the South China Sea. The question is whether Biden can understand the mindset and engagement strategy of the region.”

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt