Amidst a looming great power competition with China, the election of Joe Biden as the next US president raises an important question of whether American foreign policy will differ from the Trump administration.
However, any policy shift is predicted to be more in style rather than in substance, as the US persists to contain China’s rise.
Thus the balancing act continues for most countries in Southeast Asia as they cope with a starkly realist geopolitical environment: China is a growing hegemon in the neighborhood while the US is a distracted superpower on the other side of town.
Despite the region’s skepticism regarding American commitment and capabilities, it looks forward to engaging with the Biden administration with an appeal for a more restrained rivalry with China.
As a unifying issue in a politically-divided America, containing China will remain a US advocacy albeit in a strikingly different approach. While Trump unleashed a wholesale demonization of China (accusing it of spreading the coronavirus and campaigning against the Chinese Communist Party) and launched a full-blown attack against it (inflicting economic sanctions, while boycotting Chinese tech companies), Biden is likely to address specific grievances based on a framework for competitive coexistence that includes four key domains — military, economic, political and global governance.
In contrast to Trump’s unilateralist approach, Biden will forge multilateral coalitions on shared concerns with other countries.
He will move away from an exclusive “America versus China” crusade, and instead, seek to join forces with allies and other like-minded nations to check on Chinese economic influence and military might.
The world awaits the prospect of the US joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which Trump pulled out from the original TPP in 2017.
Unlike Trump’s transactional approach and threats of strategic retrenchment from the region, Biden is poised to seek stronger security ties with allies (such as South Korea and Taiwan), and with informal partners like the Quad (with Japan, India, and Australia).
Given the similarity between Trump and Biden’s foreign policy goal, the US-China rivalry is expected to continue and may become even more apparent in Southeast Asia. Countries in the region will have to carry on treading carefully in dealing with both superpowers as they are economically enmeshed with the Chinese, yet continuously reliant on American security guarantees.
Most of them seek to avoid explicitly aligning themselves with either Beijing or Washington, navigating a neutral path that allows them to tap on opportunities from both sides according to their national interests.
This strategic neutrality will enable Southeast Asian nations to focus more on domestic issues such as political instability and economic recovery amidst the global pandemic.
George Siy, director of the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI) in the Philippines, articulates the general sentiment of most people in the region. “We should not get provoked for there are far more pressing challenges such as Covid-19, poverty, and development needs of the country.”
Amidst a tumultuous political transition in the US, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appealed for “stable US-China relations in order for us to have a secure and predictable environment in which we can make a living and lead our lives.”
In the face of geopolitical uncertainties and a looming great power rivalry, optimism is high among countries in Southeast Asia, especially under a new American administration. This despite mounting perceptions that the US is becoming less capable and less committed to providing them with the same security guarantees as had been the case in the past.
Thus, the Biden administration will have to address this growing regional sentiment, along with the world’s diminished confidence in America, particularly the strategic influence and moral authority it once commanded and its capacity to deploy them.
The Biden administration is projected to implement foreign policy adjustments that are less confrontational and more multilateral. Southeast Asia and the rest of the world urge the US, as well as China, to heed the advice of Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye, that “instead of competitive propaganda, leaders could articulate the importance of ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ others, and to “think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals.”
- Asia Media Centre