America's election result has been closely watched across Southeast Asia. Image: Twitter

With all eyes on whether Donald Trump will win in the state of Pennsylvania – now his only real hope of keeping the White House against Joe Biden – questions are turning to what the results could mean for Southeast Asia.

In the most part, the region’s politicians have remained tight-lipped, eager to appear as welcoming of a Biden presidency as a second term for Trump.

As for commentators in the region, opinions are more divided. One narrative from many countries is that it really doesn’t matter who sits in the White House come January.  

On November 5, the Jakarta Globe confidently carried a headline, “Either Biden or Trump, Indonesia Wins.”

As the piece note, just last week the Trump administration extended Indonesia’s participation in the Generalized System of Preferences, a preferential trade system which cuts tariffs for many Indonesian exports into the US.

As a result, Trade Minister Agus Suparmanto said recently that a limited trade deal could be signed between the countries and he expected bilateral trade to grow to $60 billion in 2024, up from US$27.6 last year, regardless of who is US president.  

Vietnamese and Malaysian media have also argued that either a Biden or Trump victory would be a win-win for their countries, continuing the pre-election narrative that US policy in Southeast Asia will not fundamentally change.

“Regardless of the outcome of our election, I can be sure of one thing: the United States will remain a key player in the Indo-Pacific and a close partner to Singapore as we continue building on our indispensable economic, political, and security cooperation,” Rafik Mansour, chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Singapore, said at an event on election night.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2017. Photo: Agencies

In the hours after ballots closed late on November 3, Southeast Asian stock markets saw an immediate blip, as did most others across the world, when it at first appeared Trump was cruising to another victory.  

It now appears that the early surge for Trump was because many states first began counting in-person votes, which leaned heavily towards Republican supporters, rather than postal voting, which favored the Democrats.

As this difference evened out over the course of November 4 and 5, and after it began to appear that Biden was odds-on favourite again to win, many Southeast Asian markets rallied.

Philippine stocks have hit an eight-month high, and Indonesia’s a two-month high, agencies reported.

In Asia, most of the stock markets were up by about 1% to 2%. Singapore’s benchmark rose 2% after its biggest lenders posted strong quarterly results.

A Biden presidency is once again the most likely outcome, though it remains to be seen when any decision will be made about the results, given that Trump has promised to contest the outcome in several states, a process that could take months.

Nonetheless, some in Southeast Asia are looking optimistically at Biden’s possible inauguration in January. Kasikorn Research Centre, a Thai think-tank, published a study claiming that a Biden win would see Thai exports to the US surge by between 10 and 20% in 2021.

Calculating that a Biden presidency would boost US economic recovery by at least 3 percentage points next year, and that “1 percentage point of US growth will translate into Thai economic growth of 0.2 points,” it forecast a stronger recovery for Bangkok next year if Biden sits in the White House.

Not everyone, however, is so confident that even a Biden victory would lead to any major change in Washington, primarily because of voting patterns.  

Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong toasts before a luncheon with then-US Vice President Joe Biden at the US State Department on July 7, 2015, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

If Biden does win he would do so with the highest popular vote of any US president in more than a hundred years, something that ordinarily should provide him with a rich source of legitimacy domestically and internationally.

However, even with the final outcome still undecided, it’s clear that “Trumpism” wasn’t crushed as many pollsters first expected, and a Biden presidency will struggle to move US policy away from the “America First” and anti-globalization narrative that has beset it over the last four years.

Furthermore, it is looking increasingly likely that we will end up with a Biden presidency, a Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrats with a slight majority in the House of Representatives. In other words, a Biden presidency will be severely hamstrung when attempting to pass its own legislation.

“The close election results show that the US is divided and will become more inward-looking as a result of this,” political scientist Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysia, was quoted by the Star Malaysia on November 5.

As a result, she added, “there is not going to be a global leader from the US, and Malaysia and Asean will have to look to Europe, Japan or China at this juncture.”

If a Biden presidency cannot overcome the difficulties of globalization, which led Washington to take a staunch anti-globalization position from 2017, “there will be a pushback against globalization and the world economic system may fracture or fragment because of that,” Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was quoted as saying Thursday.  

Ahead of the US election, most pollsters were forecasting an overwhelming victory for Biden. A minority foresaw Trump’s chances of just scraping through. But few predicted the situation we could find ourselves in, a severely curtailed Biden presidency that might struggle to jettison the policies and trends of the past four years.

That somewhat puts Southeast Asian governments in an uncertain position. Can they now expect Washington under Biden to once again throw its supports behind multilateralism or will it maintain some of the Trump’s administration’s preferences for bilateralism?

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C) addresses counterparts from ASEAN countries in a live video conference on September 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Will the Republican-controlled Senate keep up the Trump administration’s focus on cutting the large trade deficits the US has with trade partners, especially Vietnam, which could still be sanctioned after the US Treasury started an investigation last month?

And how would a hamstring Biden administration alter US policy on China, if at all?

Not only do we not know who will win the US presidency and for how long this question will drag on if Trump tries to clutch victory from defeat through the courts. We do not know whether a Biden presidency in real life will resemble the one imagined ahead of the election.