President-elect Biden will restore a more traditional style of diplomacy to the United States, but domestic considerations will weigh heavily on American foreign policy – and Washington’s approach to Southeast Asia.
Following a bitterly contested election, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr will likely be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on 20 January next year. Unlike his predecessors however, Joe Biden will not have the luxury of a “honeymoon period” as a newly minted president. Indeed, the harsh reality is that upon his inauguration, Biden will have to hit the ground running as he faces considerable challenges in office. He will inherit a country afflicted by the worst public health crisis in a century, an economy struggling to increase productivity and enhance competitiveness, and a brand of identity politics that has precipitated a hyper-polarisation of American society. As a seasoned politician, the 78 year-old president-elect would surely be under no illusion of the magnitude of the task set before him.
At the same time, Joe Biden will be president of a superpower that, since the end of the Second World War, has enjoyed a degree of primacy that has allowed it to shape international affairs in ways that has reinforced its position at the apex of the global order. At the least, this has been so until now. As China emerges as a serious competitor and the US recovers from a Trump presidency that thought nothing of abrogating global leadership in favour of a more transactional approach to American foreign policy, how the Biden administration balances domestic priorities with the internationalist role that the US has traditionally embraced will be of great consequence to the world, not least to Southeast Asia.
That the Biden presidency is expected to return to a more traditional style of diplomacy will doubtless be welcomed. Indeed, one of the challenges during the Trump years was the unpredictability surrounding the president’s erratic approach to foreign policy decision-making. Some of his decisions were taken without consulting – and indeed, at times in direct contradiction to the advice from – senior officials, and often announced over Twitter. This state of affairs was not helped by the constant changes in senior official positions at the departments of State and Defense, and indeed, in the White House itself, which lent further to this unpredictability, rendering it difficult for even the most seasoned of Southeast Asian diplomats and foreign affairs officials to divine the intent and direction of US foreign and security policies.
… how the Biden administration balances domestic priorities with the internationalist role that the US has traditionally embraced will be of great consequence to the world, not least to Southeast Asia.
As a leader with extensive experience in foreign affairs, we can expect President-elect Biden to exude greater personal enthusiasm towards Southeast Asia that could, among other things, translate to more active participation in regional summitry. For a region whose diplomatic culture sets great store by the attendance of leaders at its meetings, the value and significance of simply “turning up” cannot be overstated. As it is, Donald Trump hardly visited Southeast Asia while in office. Indeed, he made only one official trip to the region, in 2017, where he attended APEC, the ASEAN Summit, and half of the East Asia Summit. While Trump did appear in Singapore and Hanoi in 2018 and 2019 respectively, these were to attend summits with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Coming on the back of the presidency of Barack Obama, who visited almost all the Southeast Asian states during his two terms in office, Trump’s absences especially from ASEAN gatherings were notable and lamented.
Yet, what was ironic about the diplomatic efforts of the Obama administration was that they occasioned expectations on the part of Southeast Asian counterparts that ultimately went unmet. For all its promise, the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, Obama’s signature regional initiative, flattered to deceive. Its potential was hampered by a combination of economic adversity (which led to sequestration), domestic political impediments (which caused several government shutdowns), and President Obama’s overly cautious approach to foreign policy. Contrarily, Southeast Asia has benefited from the Trump administration’s robust pushback against China in the South China Sea, and more recently, in the Mekong region. Likewise, many Southeast Asian states have also accepted, without complaint (at least publicly), the Quadrilateral Security Grouping, or Quad, as a new feature on the current security landscape.
Herein lies a lesson for President-elect Biden: a clear-eyed assessment of the policies of both his former boss and presidential campaign adversary would reveal that, now more than ever, Southeast Asia values a firm American security presence, which it deems to be absolutely vital to regional stability and prosperity. All things considered, a Biden administration can be expected to maintain the robust tempo that was set by their predecessor especially on policy towards Beijing, more so since there is clear bipartisan appetite for a tougher position vis-à-vis China that is itself asserting a more muscular presence on the security landscape in the region.
On trade, President-elect Biden can be expected to move the needle, but not by much. The US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a lost opportunity to cement American geo-economic interests in the region. In the wake of American absence, China has advanced its own interests with its Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, regional states (including US allies and partners) have proceeded to deepen economic integration sans the US by completing the revised TPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Evidently, President-elect Biden has expressed interest in renegotiating the TPP, but if that happens at all, it will be a difficult and long-drawn process. At any rate, not only would President-elect Biden need to be mindful of domestic sentiment that has been quickened in opposition to free trade, the US should also not assume that they would be welcomed back to the table unequivocally, with open arms. After all, as mentioned above, many regional states, still smarting from Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP, have pressed on with a regional trade agenda without the US, and their efforts have been successful.
In the final analysis, domestic considerations will loom large over foreign policy decision-making in the US during the presidency of Joe Biden. Southeast Asia needs to be aware that while the president and his administration would be keen for the US to play a more active leadership role in global affairs, domestic forces beyond their control are likely to conspire to obstruct, dilute, or, in the case of China policy, direct these efforts.
Joseph Chinyong Liow is a Trustee of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is Dean and Tan Kah Kee Chair and Professor of Comparative and International Politics, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.