US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo: AFP

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With another US presidential election comes another debate about the merits of American foreign policy over the preceding four years. But the Donald Trump administration’s record in strategic Southeast Asia – a key battleground for influence vis-à-vis China – elicits more polarized opinions than usual.  

Those who regard Trump’s policies towards Southeast Asia as misdirected and flawed can point to a lengthy list of mishaps, from his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact on his first full day in office, to his decision in 2019 not to send a sufficiently senior official to that year’s ASEAN summit in Bangkok.

On the other side, Trump has restored previously damaged ties with treaty ally Thailand and boosted relations with Vietnam, preventing both from drifting even closer to China.

Whether a Joe Biden administration would conduct regional policy differently is obviously a matter of conjecture. But analysts and observers believe a Biden win would signal that change is on the way, a shift that would both resemble and differ from his days as vice president under Barack Obama’s administration.   

America’s overall trade with Southeast Asia is higher now than when Trump entered office in January 2017. That growth has betrayed his trade wars and threats to brand and sanction Thailand and Vietnam, two of the region’s leading economies, as currency manipulators for maintaining high trade surpluses with the US.

Since last year, Trump’s administration has also launched two new initiatives that could pump hundreds of millions of dollars in new US investment into the region, providing an alternative to Chinese largesse including through its Belt and Road Initiative, increasingly seen as paving the way to sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

Regional opinions of Trump have waxed and waned over the past four years, not unexpected for a mercurial and often petulant leader.

In 2017, experts predicted that his top officials wouldn’t visit the region as often as Obama’s did; half of diplomacy in Asia is showing up, as Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 presidential rival and secretary of state under Obama, was fond of saying.

Still, Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence visited the region for 2017 summits, while Trump himself turned up in 2018. He also gave the region a trusting nod by choosing Singapore and Vietnam to host his ballyhooed peace talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

US President Donald Trump holds a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) waves a US flag upon their arrival for a meeting at the Government Office in Hanoi, February 27, 2019. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

By late 2018, the received wisdom in Southeast Asia was that at least Trump was giving the region face, if not policy priority. But in 2019, regional leaders felt snubbed when he failed to send a senior-ranking official for that year’s ASEAN summit, with several Southeast Asian overtly leaders boycotting the adjoining US-ASEAN conference.

Trump arguably never quite recovered regional trust after his decision in January 2017 to withdraw America from the TPP, a trade pact devised under Obama that would have included Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam among other Asian signatories including Japan. The pact was overtly designed by Obama to exclude China.   

Regional governments were more mixed on his perceived abandonment of human rights and democracy promotion, which the Trump administration openly cast aside in favor of building strategic alliances where military-to-military exchanges have taken precedence over traditional envoy-to-envoy diplomacy.

Trump arguably spent more time trying to undo Obama’s legacy in the region, defined by his “pivot” to Asia policy, than putting in place a coherent and strategic alternative – significantly at a time China was pouring massive financial and diplomatic resources into the region.

It’s unclear whether Biden, the clear frontrunner ahead of the US’s November 3 elections, will reciprocally seek to dismantle the Trump administration’s Southeast Asia policies and initiatives if he wins.

There are certain signs that Biden would take a more nuanced approach. Anti-China sentiment is now a bipartisan position in Washington, although Biden may well alter the language and sand down the roughest edges of Trump’s often alienating approach.

Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s top foreign advisors, said recently concerning China that “I do think that Trump shaking things up to a certain extent in terms of [how] he described and framed certain issues relating to American foreign policy created more space for a serious reckoning that was long overdue.”

A Biden administration would inherit certain key initiatives launched by Trump, which he may or may not choose to undo.

Then-President Barack Obama,standing with Then-Vice President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 14, 2015. Photo: Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

Last year’s creation of the US International Development Finance Corporation, a development finance institution with reported capital of US$60 billion, could significantly change the region’s “geo-economic” dynamic if the US deploys it strategically to compete with Chinese investment and aid in the region.

While China often announces big-ticket aid and infrastructure investments for regional countries, including an eye-popping $26 billion for the Philippines that hasn’t arrived, it often fails to follow up with actual disbursals.

Trump sought to exploit other Chinese vulnerabilities in the region. In September, Washington launched the new Mekong-US Initiative, which seeks to rival the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism in mainland Southeast Asia.

Parallel diplomatic efforts, including via Thai language op-eds penned by the Bangkok-based ambassador, have sought to denigrate China’s role in damming the river and its adverse downstream effects.  

Continuation of Trump’s policies towards the region under a possible Biden presidency may suit certain Southeast Asian locales, but any change of government in Washington that assured more consistent and less erratic messaging would likely be well-received regionwide.

Vietnam, one of America’s closest Southeast Asian partners, has spent the last four years never truly knowing whether it was loved or loathed by Trump, as he vacillated between praise and threats including in regard to how Hanoi navigated his trade war on China.

During an interview with Fox News in June last year, Trump rebuked Vietnam as the “single worst abuser” on trade with the US, even though just months earlier he hand-picked Hanoi as the setting for his historic North Korea peace talks.

Regional observers assume a Biden presidency would at least represent a shift to a calmer and more consistent narrative from the White House. That, in turn, would allow regional governments to engage in more long-term policy planning, including over how to position themselves amid US and China rivalry for regional influence.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C on screen) addresses ASEAN counterparts in a live video conference during the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting held online due to Covid-19 in Hanoi, September 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Because of his age and diplomatic experience, Biden would also likely run a more devolved administration, giving more authority and freedom to diplomats and undersecretaries on the ground in Southeast Asia to conduct policy. If so, that would be a break from Trump’s seeming desire to micromanage policy from the White House.

There are also early hopes that Biden will give stronger emphasis to Southeast Asia in America’s foreign policy mix. Biden’s current Asia team has signaled as much, with senior advisor Anthony Blinken saying, “President Biden will show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues.” 

At the same time, a Biden presidency would bring its own uncertainties. Charles Dunst, an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, wrote this month that a “Biden re-pivot to Asia cannot be Obama 2.0.”

Indeed, reports suggest Biden would significantly overhaul Obama’s diplomatic and defense teams. Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy during Obama’s first term, is widely tipped to be Biden’s defense secretary.

Kurt Campbell, the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and architect of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, is also thought to be in line for a top post. Several Southeast Asian governments were hopeful in 2016 when it was suggested that Campbell might have been tapped as Clinton’s secretary of state had she won.

US sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea on April 8, 2018. Photo: US Navy/Michael Hogan

Others raise red flags about a possible return to Obama’s approach to the region. “The prospect of a Biden presidency,” James Crabtree, a well-known regional commentator, wrote in August, “brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing.”

Flournoy’s recent comments, however, were anything but dovish when she said that the US should have the capability to “sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”

It’s a hardline that regional leaders would have expected in a rageful Trump tweet but may still have to factor into their great power policy-making and diplomacy under a more nuanced but equally firm Biden presidency.