The advent of the new Biden Administration has sparked high hopes for US engagement by Southeast Asians. Still, Uncle Sam has a mountain to climb.
Observers have been guessing for months what kind of policies Joe Biden’s Administration would adopt in its relations with Asia and Europe. The expectations in this part of the world were shown to be unexpectedly high in the latest State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey results released by the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute last week. Given that this poll was taken before the new Administration took office and even a single key foreign policy appointee confirmed, we can expect such sentiments to prevail, if not heighten, as a growing list of known Asian experts get inducted into office.
The starkest finding in the survey is the seven-fold jump in expectations for the level of US engagement to increase from less than one in ten in 2020 under the Trump Administration to almost seven in ten in 2021 under the Biden Administration. Correspondingly, the proportion of respondents who expected the level of engagement to decline shrank from 77 per cent in 2020 to just 6.9 per cent in 2021. The optimism for closer engagement is widespread in the region and strongest in Brunei, Thailand and Singapore, with Vietnam as the only country where this failed to reach a majority.
A strong clue to why this big jump happened can be found in the change in perceptions of the reliability of the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security. The preferred style of Trump to act unpredictably and transactionally had driven the proportion of Southeast Asians expressing confidence in the US as a strategic partner down to 34.5 per cent in 2020. Belief that Biden would take a more traditional strategic approach caused the confidence to rebound to 55.4 per cent this year. Conversely, those who placed little confidence in the US playing this role halved from 47 per cent to 23.7 per cent. This is consistent with the findings in the 2020 survey, in which 60.3 per cent of the respondents said that their confidence in the US as a strategic partner would increase with a change in its leadership.
Trust in the US to do the right thing for global interests also jumped from 30.3 per cent in 2020 to 48.3 per cent in 2021, while those who expressed scepticism of the US shrank by a similar proportion from 49.7 per cent to 31.3 per cent. Evidently, what the respondents read of Biden’s likely approach to governing from news reporting in the region was sufficiently assuring to cause this big swing. The shift was most pronounced in Brunei and Indonesia while Thailand, Malaysia and Laos remained more sceptical. Respondents that trusted the US did so for the same reasons as in previous years, namely that the US has the economic resources and political will to lead, and that its military power is a force for global security. Those who were sceptical mostly attributed it to the US being domestically preoccupied and unable to pay attention to global issues.
Reading the results, observers may be tempted to question whether respondents to the survey had a naïve view of the incoming Biden Administration and mistakenly expect it to be a form of Obama III – that the former will take the form of an Obama third term in office – rather than a fresh Biden approach. However, results from other parts of the survey provide ready assurance that respondents were very cognisant of how geo-political conditions have changed since the Obama era. For one, the threat of decoupling between the US and Chinese economies and deep-rooted rivalry leading to pressure for regional states to take sides is well registered in the respondents’ radar as top on-going concerns. A clear majority also expect that the US-China ties will continue to be rocky even though the tone and intensity may ease. Only small minorities expect trade relations to go back to normal or China to grant significant concessions to ease tensions. Expectations that the US will go back to championing free trade or leading in upholding international law were also modest.
While there are responses that will cheer US officials in the survey results, they also clearly indicate that there is much to be done. Besides meeting high expectations, the Biden Administration also needs to address a persistent perception in the region that China’s influence far outweighs that of the US. When asked which is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, 76.3 per cent chose China while only a tenth of that (7.4 per cent) chose the US. This greatly underestimates the real economic footprint of the US in the region but there are concrete reasons for this perception that we will not get into here.
While there are responses that will cheer US officials in the survey results, they also clearly indicate that there is much to be done. Besides meeting high expectations, the Biden Administration also needs to address a persistent perception in the region that China’s influence far outweighs that of the US.
Perhaps more worrying for Washington is that China was also the top choice as the foremost political and strategic power in the region, garnering 49.1 per cent of votes. The US came in second at 30.4 per cent, a slight rebound from 26.7 per cent last year, but nowhere close to recapturing its past pre-eminence. Despite this, the US can take heart that it is much more welcomed as a strategic influence than China. It is welcomed by 63.1 per cent of those who selected it as the top pick as against only 11.4 per cent of those who picked China, with the gap widening this year compared to the last.
A final positive for the US to take away is that, while ASEAN is firm about not wanting to pick sides, the US comes out ahead in the hypothetical event of a forced choice between the two sides. A clear majority of 61.5 per cent would prefer to align with the US, up from 53.6 per cent last year, while 38.5 per cent (down from 46.4 per cent) chose China. At the country level, seven countries chose the US while only three (Brunei, Laos and Myanmar) chose China. It shows that while there is serious work ahead for the Asian hands in the Biden Administration, gaining a good reception to its overtures may not be that difficult.
Choi Shing Kwok is Director and Chief Executive Officer of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, and Head of ASEAN Studies Centre at the institute.