With the US election finally over and President-elect Joseph Biden set to enter the oval office, leaders across Southeast Asia have turned to what the next four years may hold for relations with the embattled superpower.
Under President Donald Trump, US relations with Southeast Asia have chiefly focused on curtailing China’s expanding influence, with emphasis on the disputed South China Sea and, more recently, the politics of the Mekong River. The US has largely neglected domestic issues in most Southeast Asian states, especially around political repression and civil rights.
With the past four years of volatility coming to a close, Southeast Asia’s leaders have begun to plan for what a new, more productive relationship with the US might look like—as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times, “we aren’t in a free fall to hell anymore.”
Leaders across Southeast Asia congratulated Biden and Vice President-Elect Senator Kamala Harris on their win, with heads of state and leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam offering statements over the weekend.
In his victory speech, the US president-elect pledged “to make America respected around the world again.” Though opinions vary as to whether the US was respected prior to the Trump presidency, Biden’s success will likely mean an end to the volatility and protectionism of US leadership over the past four years.
“Malaysia looks forward to strengthening further [its] partnership with the United States under President-elect Joe Biden’s leadership,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, “as the international community seeks to address the many global challenges, including the disastrous impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Malaysian member of parliament Lim Kit Siang, of the Democratic Action Party, said Malaysia would do well to heed key lessons from the US vote.
“The cliff-hanger of the US elections this week is both an ominous warning and a great inspiration for Malaysians who feel that Malaysia deserves better in all areas of national life,” he said, calling the election “a testimony of the power of disinformation and fake news.”
“That Biden finally won is also a testimony of the power of national renewal and the ability of the ordinary people to save a country from infamy and perdition,” he added.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo offered his “warmest congratulations” to Biden and Harris via tweet on Sunday, saying he looks forward to “pushing forward our cooperation on economy, democracy and multilateralism for the benefit of our two people and beyond.”
On a visit to Washington in 2015, then-Vice President Biden met with Jokowi at his residence and emphasized that the US places strategic value on relations with Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also issued a statement on Biden’s win, saying “We look forward to working closely with the new administration of President-elect Biden anchored on mutual respect, mutual benefit, and shared commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” The statement appears to echo some of the wording that the Trump administration has used in recent months to condemn China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and globally.
Philippine lawmaker Jose Maria Salceda expressed optimism that Biden may restore close ties with “traditional US allies”, including the Philippines, and “ease the deadlock on US stimulus talks” for the island nation. He also pointed to the US government’s existing commitment of US$60 billion in development finance for the Philippines and suggested that Biden is likely to use it “more aggressively than Trump has to compete with Chinese investment and aid in the Philippines and in ASEAN in general.”
“Biden will be starting from a very low base, as far as trade relations with Southeast Asia is concerned,” Salceda added.
As for Myanmar, the nascent democracy was occupied with an election of its own on Sunday but Biden has already pledged that he will end the Trump travel ban that still applies, pandemic aside, to citizens of Myanmar and 12 other countries.
Some political analysts in Southeast Asia expressed skepticism about the promise of the incoming Biden administration.
In Cambodia, Virak Ou, founder and president of the think tank Future Forum, told the Los Angeles Times that the international reputation of the US will likely remain in decline.
“More people are realizing that there’s too much fluctuation in American foreign policy, that the US can’t be a credible and reliable ally,” Ou said. “You assume with a stable presidency you can go back, but in the eyes of the world, America can just go back to another Trump one day. He’s changed everything.”
Top Trump diplomat toured Southeast Asia ahead of election
Prior to last week’s vote in the US, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made official visits to Indonesia and Vietnam in late October, following stops in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He called for unity across the region to combat China’s mounting aggression, repeatedly invoking the importance of “sovereignty” in his official addresses.
“We have enormous respect for the Vietnamese people and your country’s sovereignty,” Pompeo said during his stop in Hanoi in an address to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
In Indonesia, Pompeo lauded the Jokowi government for pushing back against China’s unlawful maritime claims. During his address in the Muslim nation, he also spoke out against the persecution of religious minorities in China.
As part of its crusade against Beijing, the Trump administration has highlighted China’s poor performance on human rights. Pompeo placed little emphasis on rights issues inside Vietnam or Indonesia during his visits.
Ahead of Pompeo’s tour, the US State Department released a statement highlighting China’s aggression in the region.
“The United States stands with our Indo-Pacific allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources in the South China Sea, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law,” it said.
The State Department also condemned China’s “destabilizing actions in the Mekong region, including manipulation of Mekong River water flows, negatively affect millions of people who depend on the river for their livelihoods.”
Many Southeast Asian leaders appear cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a Biden administration: though the next four years may promise some stability, it’s unlikely that the new government in Washington will do much to defuse tensions with China. As for US partnerships in the region, ASEAN states will look for proof of long term commitments with concrete actions that match.