Uncle Sam Will Have to Change His Tune After November for Buy-in From Southeast Asia

High stakes in the upcoming US presidential election for Southeast Asia and for American influence and goodwill in the region.

US State Secretary Rex Tillerson and other world leaders attend a photo session for the 12 East Asia Summit on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila on November 14, 2017.
US State Secretary Rex Tillerson (far left) and other world leaders attend a photo session for the 12 East Asia Summit on the sideline of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 14, 2017. (Photo: Bullit Marquez / various sources / AFP)
Hunter Marston

Hunter Marston

11 September 2020

Only weeks from the US presidential election on November 3, Southeast Asia sees an American electorate distracted by partisan divide, conspiracy theories, and culture wars. If Washington wants to reverse the erosion of its influence and goodwill in Southeast Asia, and garner more support for its confrontation of China, the next president needs a smarter regional strategy to elicit buy-in from regional partners and friends.

The Trump administration’s “America First” worldview has caused concern among Washington’s allies and partners in Asia, whom President Trump has often snubbed or denigrated. Washington has juggled paradoxical urges toward isolationism and maximalism; responding to Americans’ preference for domestic renewal and spending and fighting less abroad, while promising a stronger global military presence to compete with Russia and China.

Beneath the surface, however, the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific is largely consistent with past Obama and Bush administration Asia strategies. Under President Trump, the Pentagon has expanded Barack Obama’s Maritime Security Initiative and increased the frequency of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to challenge Beijing’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. With strong bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump administration has enacted legislation to advance Asian economic and infrastructure development, including the BUILD Act and Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA).

However, Trump’s trade wars, anti-alliance rhetoric, and go-it-alone attitude have undermined trust in Washington as a global leader (despite the administration’s claims to the contrary). In an ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute survey of policy elites in the ten ASEAN member states released in January, only 30 per cent of respondents were confident that the United States would “do the right thing” in contributing to global security and governance.

More than 60 per cent said their confidence in the US as a strategic partner would improve if there were a change of leadership in November. It is therefore worth considering the potential contours of a Biden presidency’s Southeast Asia strategy. As a candidate, he has emphasised American values of democracy and human rights, and his commitment to climate change and global health. In an article in Foreign Affairs, he declared that his administration would commit to “deepening partnerships from India to Indonesia to advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future.”

A more balanced strategy to confront Beijing that avoids the Trump administration’s zero-sum and ideologically-infused rhetoric and policies likely will be welcome in Southeast Asia.

Biden has identified China as a major threat not only to US national security but to democratic values worldwide. Nevertheless, “Biden wants to stand up to China without provoking a new Cold War,” according to James Traub. Echoing the Obama administration he served in, Biden plans to do so by reinvigorating US alliances and partnerships while holding out hope of cooperating with Beijing where possible.

A more balanced strategy to confront Beijing that avoids the Trump administration’s zero-sum and ideologically-infused rhetoric and policies likely will be welcome in Southeast Asia. Regional states see China as an economic opportunity and permanent geographical reality.

While Biden’s emphasis on democracy and human rights may sell well at home, Southeast Asians may not unanimously embrace Biden’s calls for the “Free World” to “come together to compete with China’s…high-tech authoritarianism.” It is uncertain whether such a would-be coalition has room for authoritarian partners like Vietnam, illiberal democracies like the Philippines, or military-governed Thailand, the latter two America’s treaty allies in the region. Hanoi has increased its security cooperation with Washington during the Trump administration and that of Obama previously, largely due to the absence of pressure over human rights and democratic reforms.

Southeast Asia also will be looking for more economic engagement from Washington. Despite the Trump administration’s tentative moves to encourage infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific by mobilising private sector capital, Donald Trump’s ill-conceived decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office came as a major let-down to partners like Singapore and Vietnam. The Biden administration could help restore confidence in US leadership by reinvigorating Washington’s participation in multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, which the Trump administration has damaged or all but destroyed.

More than anything, the next president will need to show up to regional summits, an important signal of Washington’s regional commitment. In a major blow to US influence and goodwill, Donald Trump skipped both the 2018 and 2019 ASEAN summits, most recently sending National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, the lowest level of US representation to date.

These are just a few steps a Biden administration could take to deepen support for it in Southeast Asia. Regardless of who wins in November, Southeast Asian countries will continue to seek support from external partners in order to balance against China’s growing influence and threats to their security to maintain their strategic and economic autonomy. US assistance on these fronts remains most welcome.

Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and former Senior Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/134

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.