Would Joe Biden be better than Trump for Southeast Asia?

With domestic issues the major focus of the US presidential election, the rival candidates have not said much about their policies towards Southeast Asia. But one thing seems true: Southeast Asians seem to prefer Joe Biden to another four years of Donald Trump.

The outlier, of course, is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In February this year he joined a small coterie of right-wing populist leaders around the world who have openly expressed their support for Trump’s re-election. “He (President Trump) deserves to be elected”, Duterte told the media when Trump responded mildly to Manila’s announcement that Manila wished to end a decades-old military agreement with the United States. While US Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper called Manila’s decision “unfortunate,” Trump waved the problem away as if it was of little strategic importance: “We’ll save a lot of money,” he said.

In terms of political style, the two presidents have much in common. Both men regularly break political and diplomatic conventions, and see themselves as strong leaders facing determined opposition from political opponents they regard to be of lesser prowess. Taking a page from President Trump’s playbook, President Duterte’s State of the Union address on 27 July this year was filled with complaints against his critics and the local media.

In other parts of Southeast Asia, however, Trump has few admirers. Instead, the US President has antagonised local populations with his anti-Muslim rhetoric. His withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), did not go down well with regional governments either, and he has been agonisingly slow to appoint ambassadors to Singapore and Myanmar. But for the region’s diplomatic community, Trump’s failure to appoint an Asean envoy has been far more galling, as has his absence at various Asean forums. The contrast with President Obama, who attended almost every Asean summit, is hard for Asean diplomats to forget.

In Malaysia, Trump’s perceived negative impact on Southeast Asia and the world in general is probably one of the few things politicians in Kuala Lumpur can agree on these days. In February 2020 Mahathir Mohamad cheekily suggested that Trump should “resign to save America”. Anwar is on record as saying that Biden was his “friend”. As for Najib, his description of Trump as his buddy during a visit to Washington in September 2017 rang hollow the following month when US Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the 1MDB scandal as the worst possible form of kleptocracy. Of all the current Malaysian leaders, only Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin may have reason to regard the US leader positively. After all, the US President did telephone him personally to express his congratulations after Muhyiddin controversially replaced Mahathir as Prime Minister earlier this year.

Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Centre in Indonesia suggest that Trump is also regarded unfavourably by large numbers of ordinary Indonesians. But while most citizens have probably been influenced by Trump’s anti-Islamic utterances, the concerns of government planners in Jakarta are primarily economic. In recent years, trade volumes between the two countries have stagnated. How this situation could be improved with a protectionist president continuing in the White House is anyone’s guess. In 2017 Indonesia was among the countries identified by the Trump Administration as having a trade imbalance with the US large enough to be worthy of investigation. Having dealt with China on the trade issue, could a re-elected Trump turn his attention to Indonesia?

Some observers argue that for Southeast Asia a Biden presidency would probably not be much different to that of Trump. Biden may not be a protectionist at heart, but he will need to deal with the increasing influence of the protectionist spirit in the United States, some of which permeates even his own party. Then there is the growing bipartisan consensus in Washington regarding the need to confront China’s increasing assertiveness. All this suggests that the main thrust of US foreign policy is unlikely to change. This includes continuing to insist on freedom of navigation in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and confronting China on trade, technology and intellectual property issues. Given this strategic rivalry, observers argue, other matters will probably get a lower priority.

That said, the continuing US focus on China could nevertheless have its benefits. Trump’s imposition of tariffs on China’s exports has already encouraged multinational corporations to look more favourably on alternative low cost destinations such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia. The US has also increased its aid for countries in IndoChina believed to be suffering from China’s construction of dams in the upper reaches of the Mekong River.

For Southeast Asia as a whole, however, one of the more important reasons for backing Biden is that, as a longstanding member of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he can at least be expected to have a good understanding of the major issues affecting the region. As recently as August this year Trump was widely mocked in both the Bangkok press and on social media after he pronounced Thailand as “Thighland” during a speech during a campaign event in Ohio. Such stories, including those about the US President being unable to identify countries of strategic importance to the US on a map, are unlikely to gain much traction under a Biden Administration.

Yet another of Biden’s attractions is that he lacks Trump’s abrasive personality. Biden is thus seen as unlikely to play brinkmanship with North Korea or China in a way that could raise tensions in the region and inadvertently trigger a shooting war. Such a catastrophic development, while it may not involve Southeast Asia directly, would have a devastating impact on investment and trade flows, to say nothing of the diplomatic nightmare facing the region’s governments as they try to maintain at least a semblance of neutrality.

Certain paragraphs in the Democratic Party platform – though not binding on Biden – also suggest a difference in substance. One of these is a pledge to strengthen US alliances in Asia. Inevitably this will mean taking a more consultative approach on major issues, a strategy that has been sorely lacking during the Trump presidency. Biden may also pursue common regional interests on issues such as climate change. And in doing so, he will likely refocus Washington’s attention on multilateral institutions of relevance to Southeast Asia such as the WHO and the World Bank.

A return to the TPP, however, may take some time – if indeed it happens at all. Significantly, the Democratic presidential candidate has not said much about this regional trade pact, partly perhaps because sections of his own party have their own concerns about free trade. More likely, Biden will attempt to conclude less comprehensive, and far less controversial, industry focused agreements.

But dealing with a Biden Administration would not be smooth sailing for Southeast Asia in other ways.

One less welcome change from the point of view of many Southeast Asian governments may well be a heightened concern for human rights. The assumption that Trump cares little about such matters is almost certainly one of the reasons Duterte favours Trump continuing in office. While career diplomats in the State Department have expressed concern about Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the president has shown little interest in taking up the subject. Indeed, he has expressed admiration for Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem”. With a Democrat in the White House, Washington may take such matters much more seriously. One early target is likely to be Mynamar and its treatment of its minority Rohingya population. A renewed US interest in human rights under a Biden Administration is also a possibility Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his military-backed government cannot afford to ignore as they face down the current protests in Bangkok.

Would Joe Biden be better than Donald Trump for Southeast Asia? It depends on who you ask.

This commentary was written exclusively for ASLI CPPS by Dr Bruce Gale. Dr Bruce Gale is Manager of Gale Consulting Asia. Gale Consulting Asia provides confidential research and writing services to the private sector.

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

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Published Date
  • October 29, 2020
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