Today, the United States will vote in what may well turn out to be one of the most consequential presidential elections in a generation. The winner of the election – whether incumbent President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden – will play a significant role both in domestic policy, and in shaping American engagement with Asia in an age of rising Chinese power. While the result cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty (especially after Trump’s boil-over victory in 2016), it is worth anticipating what Biden presidency would mean for Southeast Asia, the world’s quintessential “Indo-Pacific” region and a crucial battlefield in the gathering American competition with China. The likely effect, as I see it, will be relative change on the style and implementation, alongside relative continuity on the substance.
What we will see
More coherence, fewer contradictions: If there is one noun that aptly summarizes Trump administration’s foreign policy in general, and its approach to Southeast Asia in particular, it is “incoherence.” At one moment, senior administration officials have depicted U.S.-China competition in starkly ideological terms, as a looming global showdown between freedom and authoritarianism. At the next, President Trump has cozied up to autocrats and praised their iron-fisted methods, from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war” to his various dalliances with Vladimir Putin. In a similar way, the administration has pledged robust support to Southeast Asian partners and allies in order to stiffen their resolve to stand up to China’s growing power and belligerence, only to rankle them by picking petty trade disputes or failing to front up to important diplomatic summits. A Biden administration would mark an end to the mercurial, zig-zagging decision making of the Trump era, and usher in at least four years in which presidential decisions and actions were more closely aligned with the various organs of government.
More investment in diplomacy: The Trump years have not been good for the U.S. State Department and the career Foreign Service Officers that have long represented American interests and values to the world. In few places this has been more apparent, given the region’s strategic importance, as in Southeast Asia. While key strategic documents have described Southeast Asia as a vital focus of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, key diplomatic posts in the region have gone unfilled, while the administration has seen record levels of political appointees. In terms of its approach to the world, Trump’s team has often been, well, undiplomatic. While U.S. hegemony has always rested, in the final analysis, on its hard power, it is striking the extent to which Trump has stripped away the veneer of comity and mutual consent, and relied on coercive tools like economic sanctions and punitive trade measures. Add to this the domestic turmoil and division that has accompanied Trump’s four years in the White House, and Washington’s soft power stocks have rarely been so depleted.
A Biden administration would begin to redress many of these shortfalls. A long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden would spearhead a revival of the State Department. In terms of his Asia policy, Biden would preside over an updated, stiffened version of President Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” policy, the formulation and implementation of which will at least take regional interests more seriously. Biden’s senior advisor Anthony Blinken has promised, “President Biden will show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues.” More diplomacy doesn’t necessarily promise more effectiveness, but it will ensure that U.S. policy is more cogently formulated and reliably telegraphed to Southeast Asian capitals.
What we won’t see
A return to the old China policy: Even before Trump took office, American official opinion on China had begun to turn. Like an ocean liner, it took a long time to shift course, but there is no significant constituency urging a return to the old coordinates. Indeed, a hawkish position on China is probably the closest thing that U.S. politics now has to an issue of bipartisan concord. This suggests that the anti-China shift is less about personalities than about structure: the reflex of an incumbent hegemon faced with a rising and increasingly ambitious power at the epicenter of its Pacific sphere of influence.
A Biden presidency could therefore be expected to continue its predecessor’s full-court press against Beijing, from Hong Kong to its treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. The U.S. Navy will keep up its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and there is unlikely to be a return to the cautious China policy – sometimes verging on acquiescence – of the Obama years. This will naturally seep down into Washington’s Southeast Asia policy. While a revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is unlikely, we can expect a Biden administration to do more to meet China’s challenge in the area where it is most serious: economics. As a result, Southeast Asian nations that have been most satisfied by the anti-China turn of the Trump years can expect to receive robust U.S. support.
A resolution of the conflict between values and interests: Southeast Asian governments have generally not been impressed by the Trump administration’s framing of competition with China in ideological terms, as a global battle of freedom and authoritarianism. However, this is unlikely to change under a putative Biden administration. While Secretary of State Pompeo has proffered some particularly simplistic sermons about the China threat, the tendency to frame power rivalries as battles of good and evil bridges partisan divides in Washington. Like the idea of American exceptionalism to which it is closely conjoined, this idea is too deeply embedded in American identity and self-perceptions to expect it to go away. It also reflects practical considerations. As Aaron L. Friedberg, a former Bush administration official, put it in 2018: “Geopolitical abstractions and economic statistics may be important, but historically what has moved and motivated the American people is a recognition that the principles on which their system is founded are under threat.”
A Biden administration would continue to depict China not just as an authoritarian superpower (which it is), but also as a global threat to the very idea of freedom itself. It would frame competition with China in terms of a global battle of ideologies, and, in a rhetorical carry-over from the Trump years, speak of binding together “like-minded” democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific. The first Biden term would likely see a revival of democracy promotion as a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy, on the assumption (not always stated openly) that a more democratic world is both achievable and likely to turn the tide against China.
In Southeast Asia, a putative President Biden, like Trump and Obama before him, will thus face the challenge of pushing a policy of democratic and liberal ends in a region with few democratic or liberal governments. The administration will make advances when it deals with the region pragmatically, and suffer reverses when it pushes liberal values too assiduously. Whatever the impact, a Biden administration’s policy toward China and Southeast Asia will continue to be wrought by longstanding contradictions between liberal means and liberal ends.