Webinar on “U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy: Similarities and Differences between Trump and Biden”

In this webinar, Dr John Lee offers some insight into what will remain the same and what will be different when it comes to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific a Biden presidency might employ for the Indo-Pacific region – when it comes to strategy, practice, mindset and expectations of partners in Southeast Asia.


Tuesday, 28 July 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted ISEAS Associate Fellow Dr John Lee to a webinar about the “U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy: Similarities and Differences between Trump and Biden”. Dr Lee is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney, and had served as a Senior National Security Adviser to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop from 2016 to 2018. Around 100 attendees, including diplomats, researchers, journalists, and members of the public, listened to Dr Lee’s online presentation as he discussed the possible changes in American foreign policy towards the region if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden were to emerge victorious in the November elections. 

Dr John Lee argued that Biden will remain committed to the substance of the 2018 US National Security Strategy in acknowledging China as the U.S.’s first and foremost strategic challenge. Mr Daljit Singh moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

According to Dr Lee, Biden is a “conventional modern-day American leader” who believes that Trump has “ceded American leadership” and has given up on America’s “sacred mission” to “oversee the progression of the world in a positive way”. Furthermore, unlike Trump, Biden does not want to be seen as a “disruptor” or a “maverick”, seeking instead the respect of elites and experts who Trump regularly spurns. A Biden administration would depart from Trump’s unilateralism and America First rhetoric. However, Dr Lee argued that Biden will remain committed to the substance of the 2018 US National Security Strategy, including retaining the idea and moniker of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and acknowledging China as the U.S.’s first and foremost strategic challenge. Moreover, while talk of American allies and partners being a burden will be eschewed, a Biden administration will ask “what more should the U.S. and its allies do together” and “what each ally should bring to the table”. In other words, Biden will expect American allies and partners to assume more responsibilities, although this will be couched in the language of “more soothing diplomacy”. 

Dr Lee also stated that Biden recognises the importance of hard power in countering China. He would instead rely on the forward deployment of military capabilities such as land-based missiles and hypersonic weapons in the region. This is a reflection of Biden’s growing belief that material deterrence and even coercion might prove necessary since the imposition of purely diplomatic costs on China has not worked in changing Chinese behaviour. 

Dr Lee however warned that a Biden administration might not necessarily mean an easier time for Southeast Asian countries. While a Biden White House will be more consultative, there will also be “new and greater burdens” placed on Southeast Asia states. Renewed engagement with Southeast Asia under Biden will mean that countries are expected to “take sides on certain issues” and be “more proactive in hosting American assets” in the region.

The region may stand to benefit economically from a Biden administration. Biden is more likely to consider admitting America into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) following concerns from the Democratic Party that the FOIP lacks an economic component. However, this would also come with the expectation for Southeast Asian countries to resist some of China’s predatory economic practices, including projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On his part, Biden will be more personally engaged with the region (including attending East Asia Summits) and seek to implement his agenda through ASEAN. However, a Biden administration will be sceptical of ASEAN’s efforts to emphasize neutrality and inclusiveness since those are seen as providing diplomatic cover for China. 

Dr Lee’s presentation was followed by a 15-minute comment on it by Mr Daljit Singh who moderated the webinar. Finally, Dr Lee fielded questions from the audience on various issues, including the recent consulate closures in both countries, the possibility of deploying American land-based missiles in the region and the policies a Biden presidency might pursue towards developing countries in Southeast Asia as well as the South China Sea.

Over 100 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)