Donald Trump’s presidency has damaged America’s stature in Southeast Asia greatly. What does Joe Biden need to do to reverse the impact of last four years?
A Joe Biden presidency will look to repair America’s image in Southeast Asia through deeper engagement with the region, but the US cannot expect an easy road ahead given China’s gains over the last four years and President Trump’s tumultuous diplomacy.
Biden will likely follow an assertive policy to contain China’s business and security advances in the region. At the same time, his administration may also employ a softer approach that places greater emphasis on human rights—something that was missing during Trump’s presidency.
Southeast Asia will look for a dependable partner in the Biden administration
The Trump administration has not impressed Southeast Asian governments, mainly due to his lack of commitment to America’s traditional policy of supporting allies in the region in the face of rising threats from China.
If anything, Trump has decisively scaled back America’s diplomatic footprint and the level of trust that Southeast Asian partners once had in Washington quickly declined. There has been a lot of uncertainty when it comes to America’s role in the region and Southeast Asian governments will expect Biden to address this during the early days of his presidency.
“Trump’s transactional and deal-based ties are set to be replaced with more measured policies,” said Gavin Greenwood, a risk analyst with Hong Kong-based firm A2 Global Risk.
President Trump not only failed to attend ASEAN summits but also withdrew his country from the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This left Washington’s allies in the region wondering whether the US could still be considered a reliable partner.
Ade M Wirasenjaya, who lectures on international relations at the University of Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, told VOA that “Biden will reconstruct US foreign policy in Southeast Asia.”
“President-elect Biden has already proclaimed ‘we’re back!’ meaning that top US officials will turn up for high-level meetings with their ASEAN counterparts,” he added.
How big is the China challenge for Biden in Southeast Asia?
A week ago, ASEAN leaders signed a rival trade deal to the TPP, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The deal, anchored by China, is being considered the world’s largest trade pact. For Biden, this couldn’t have happened at the worse time.
Before the signing of the RCEP, ASEAN had already become a bigger trading partner for China than the United States. During the first quarter of 2020, ASEAN accounted for 16% of China’s exports; it was the first time on record that the trade bloc accounted for a larger share of China’s exports than the US.
More importantly, this also shows that China’s diplomatic and economic clout has risen sharply in Southeast Asia over the last few years. ASEAN’s signing of a major trade pact with China in a way shows that the region is ready to work with Beijing regardless of its growing military assertiveness in the region and waning human rights records.
This is a challenge for the Biden administration across Southeast Asia and only tangible steps, ranging from trade deals to renewal of military partnerships and support to address new challenges, can allay the concerns of Southeast Asian leaders.
Biden is likely to reverse Trump’s aggressive rhetoric in dealing with China in Southeast Asia and introduce subtler and quieter approaches that offer plenty to Southeast Asian allies.
How will Biden move to reassure allies in Southeast Asia?
President Trump was quick to leave the TPP, which would’ve fostered closer economic ties among all parties involved. As a result, the TPP was never approved and transitioned into what’s now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The first thing Biden needs to do is to start looking into joining this trade bloc. This is the most compellent and clear way to assure allies of US partnership and push Washington’s influence across Southeast Asia.
Biden needs to be seen as committed to America’s regional allies and for that he needs a credible and full team, which was missing during Trump’s presidency. Reportedly, Biden is already making appointments that will fill hundreds of key positions in the State Department that were left vacant by Trump.
Southeast Asia can hope to see a higher level of engagement that also involves Biden travelling to the region alongside key officials. “A Biden presidency can be expected to seek to repair the often negative impact of the Trump era on many Southeast Asian countries,” Greenwood said, adding this would be revealed by a “return of regional specialists to the State Department and a more balanced relationship with the Pentagon.”
Biden will have to seize the chance to remake old friendships and show that the US will not follow a divide-and-rule approach in Southeast Asia when it comes to containing China.
“Biden will become a strategic partner with ASEAN,” Wirasenjaya said, “particularly to reduce China’s aggression in the South China Sea.”