Vietnamese-Americans protest against chronic human rights abuses in Vietnam. Image: Facebook

“When I am president, human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy,” Joe Biden pledged in a New York Times interview earlier this year.  

Now as US president-elect, Biden will have several weeks to recruit a foreign policy team geared towards that aim before his official inauguration in January.

But Biden will quickly face a realpolitik dilemma in strategic Southeast Asia, where the US is pitted in a competition with China for influence among the region’s many less-than-democratic leaders and regimes.  

Regional officials will no doubt be monitoring for any indication that US policy is about to shift come January. So far, most Southeast Asian premiers have voiced their support for the next US leader, though with some notable exceptions.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the “the huge turn out [that] is a reflection of the hope placed on democracy,” in a tweet.

“Look forward to work closely with you in strengthening Indonesia-US strategic partnership and pushing forward our cooperation on economy, democracy and multilateralism for the benefit of our two people and beyond,” he added.

“Malaysia has closely followed the electoral process in the US, with much anticipation,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin also wrote on Twitter.

Malaysia’s main opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, noted that “the American people have chosen unity over racism and a government that is committed to peace, defending human rights and the environment.”

Donald Trump’s departure from the White House will go some way towards improving human rights in the region as strongman populists like Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte lose the legitimizing factor they enjoyed while Trump was in power.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) talks to US President Donald Trump (R) before the opening ceremony of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

“After taking office in January, the Biden administration should act to reverse Trump’s many transgressions of rights at home and to address the many inconsistencies and hypocrisies that have long plagued US human rights policy abroad,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Lawsuits and heightened tensions at home could stymie Biden’s preparations ahead of his inauguration on January 20, and events over the next two months could affect how quickly a possibly Republican-dominated Senate accepts Biden’s cabinet and ambassador nominations.   

There are some things he can do quickly once he enters the White House, though. Reports suggest Biden might sign an executive order to put the US back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major free trade deal shaped while Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. Trump removed the US from TPP on his first full day in office in 2017.

The US is also likely to quickly rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, the Iran nuclear deal and possibly the UN Human Rights Council, all of which Trump withdrew the US from.

Biden will also be expected to quickly make clear how, if at all, he intends to alter America’s rivalry with China, a key consideration for Southeast Asia as policy in Washington over the past four years has been defined largely by how the region relates to China’s geopolitical moves and ambitions.

Soon after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump signaled that human rights in the region would be of diminished importance for Washington.

A missive was sent to Bangkok in February that year to renew relations that had frayed since a democracy-suspending military coup in 2014. On April 29, 2017, Trump spoke to Philippine President Duterte by phone and invited him to the White House, a visit that never transpired.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump reportedly told him, referring to Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs” that had killed at least 8,000 by the time and adversely impacted relations under the Obama-Biden administration.

The Trump administration was quick to realize that Obama’s team was naïve about China’s growing importance in world and regional politics. Beijing’s increased investment and aid contributions to Southeast Asian states were then quickly altering the region’s traditional loyalties to America.

A new China-Cambodia trade pact will not provide Phnom Penh the economic lifeline it needs amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Image: Twitter

The most immediate indication of this was when Cambodia’s government “postponed” joint-military operations with the US just days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and instead began drilling with China’s military.

Bangkok also secured closer military ties with Beijing after Washington broke off certain military ties following the 2014 coup in Thailand. Duterte’s government in the Philippines sought closer relations with China in 2016 as it clashed with the Obama administration over human rights issues.

Under Trump, the prevailing opinion in Washington seemed to be that if the US pushed back too strongly against rights abuses or democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia, it would incentivize states to move closer into China’s orbit.

It is a narrative that many of Southeast Asia’s more autocratic governments wanted Washington to believe, thereby playing one superpower off against the other for maximum benefit.

The outgoing Trump administration can at least boast that it forestalled any major pivot towards China by its major partners in the region – although his actions, erraticism and impolitic utterances have clearly left America’s reputation at a diplomatic nadir.

It’s unlikely that the Biden administration will u-turn on Trump’s desire to maintain key alliances in Southeast Asia. Instead, Biden will most probably attempt to combine Obama’s values-based pragmatism with an acknowledgement and acceptance that global politics have changed considerably since his time as vice president.

“The United States should be pushing back on China’s deepening authoritarianism,” Biden said earlier this year, “leading the free world in support of the brave people of Hong Kong as they demand the civil liberties and autonomy promised to them by Beijing.”

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a State Luncheon for China hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry on September 25, 2015 at the Department of State in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Paul J. Richards

While Biden may push hard on China’s abysmal rights record, his approach towards authoritarian allies in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, will likely be more subtle, with more attention paid to annually held human rights dialogues the US hosts with several regional states.

US diplomats will also likely be instructed to place greater emphasis on rights and democracy when speaking and meeting in private with regional officials.

Biden himself will also likely speak more frequently about global issues of democracy and human rights, whereas Trump largely left this task to more junior officials, which weakened the gravitas of the message in Southeast Asia.   

Observers expect certain new initiatives. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a potential Secretary of State candidate, according to reports, last year suggested deploying foreign service officers “dedicated to fighting corruption abroad, so that every embassy in the world has one or more dedicated American staffers working to protect the rule of law from attack.”

He added: “Elevate the fight against corruption by tracking dictators’ dollars the way we do terrorist financing, employing an army of accountants and Treasury Department experts.”

This would certainly raise concerns among Southeast Asia’s dynastic leaders, whose family and business networks are vast and are often a direct impediment to democratic change. It would also be an effective and indirect way of sanctioning foreign leaders without hurting their populaces.

More importantly, a Biden administration is expected to favor democracy-building through more multilateral channels. His government will almost certainly refocus Washington’s natural preference for multilateralism and the traditional structures of international rule of law, whereas Trump preferred bilateral interactions, often between only himself and a foreign leader.

If the Biden administration does work more closely with other democratic partners – including Japan, South Korea, Australia and the European Union – multilateral pressure for progressive reforms can be applied on Southeast Asia’s authoritarian states which rely on them for investment, trade and aid.

To be sure, the Biden camp will inherit some useful tools from the outgoing administration.  

This year, Washington launched the International Development Finance Corporation, a new investment bank reportedly with US$60 billion in capital for investment in lower and middle-income countries, including in Southeast Asia.

A fisherman sitting on his boat as he pulls his net from the Mekong river in Wiang Kaen, a district in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai bordering Laos. Photo: AFP/Chrisophe Archambault

In September, the Mekong-US Partnership announced that it would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the mainland Southeast Asia region. Both of these initiatives will allow the US to compete with China on infrastructure project funding

However, Biden optimism should be tempered. Democracy and rights conditions in the region have deteriorated under Trump, but they were already rapidly worsening in the final years of Obama’s second term. In many cases, the US has few means to turn the situation around.

Moreover, some issues are well-established. Nobody expects the Biden presidency to change America’s acceptance of Vietnam’s one-party communist system and its widespread human rights abuses, a bipartisan consensus established during the Obama administration because of Hanoi’s opposition to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

“US policy has failed the Vietnamese people,” commented Representative Christopher Smith at a hearing of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations in July 2018, noting the Trump administration’s continuance of Obama’s policy.

“This is a bipartisan criticism. We have enriched Vietnam’s Communist leaders and coddled their interests at the expense of the hope and desires of the Vietnamese people for liberty and human rights.”

The Trump administration, EU and UN also accepted the results of last year’s general election in Thailand, despite its obvious flaws and irregularities. Barring any major show of repression amid ongoing anti-government and anti-monarchy protests in the kingdom, Biden’s camp is likely to accept Thailand’s political status quo.

Biden will also arrive in office too late to have any real effect on US policy after results are tallied this week for Myanmar’s general election, which is widely expected to have been conducted unfairly in favor of the ruling National League for Democracy and the increasingly authoritarian-leaning Aung San Suu Kyi.