US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. - Photos: Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/AFP

SINGAPORE – A bitterly contested US presidential election that is still too close to call has the world on tenterhooks. In Southeast Asia, a strategic region at the center of an escalating rivalry between the United States and China, the contest is being closely watched for signals of what the next four years of American foreign policy will bring.

Mail-in ballots continue to be counted in crucial battleground states, which have given Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 77, a clearer path to victory in a knife’s edge election that has failed to deliver the clear repudiation of US President Donald Trump that Democrats had hoped for and national polling had projected.

In a break with presidential norms, Trump, 74, pre-emptively declared victory at the White House in the early hours of November 4 with millions of votes yet to be counted, repeating assertions made throughout the campaign that widespread mail-in voting motivated by the Covid-19 pandemic would lead to rampant voter fraud without presenting evidence.

State-by-state litigation could bring days or possibly weeks of legal uncertainty in an attempt by the president to push the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the race if he is unable to eke out a path to victory as he did in 2016. An eruption of violent protests and civil unrest over disputed election results could occur amid the uncertainty.

“If the country slides into widespread civil unrest because of the uncertainty of this electoral outcome, it goes without saying that America’s leadership and credibility will take a huge hit internationally, one from which it may struggle to recover for years to come,” said Elina Noor, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Despite Biden being ahead in the nationwide popular vote by more than 3 million votes, this election saw Trump improve on his 2016 showing by around 6 million votes. Ali Wyne, a senior analyst for Global Macro at the Eurasia Group, believes the next US president will in any case be confronted with large segments of the electorate who dispute his legitimacy.

“That likelihood will deepen the concern of many allies and partners that America’s domestic challenges are constraining its ability to pursue a consistent and constructive foreign policy. America’s external competitiveness depends in good measure on its internal competence,” he told Asia Times.  

Anti-Trump demonstrators in New York City on November 4, 2020. Photo: John Lamparski/NurPhoto via AFP

Seen abroad as a credibility test for US democracy, how one of the most polarizing presidential races in US history is ultimately handled will impact American prestige at a time when China has telegraphed its global leadership ambitions and competent containment of the coronavirus as it pushes “vaccine diplomacy” efforts in Southeast Asia.

Beijing has emerged as a leader in the production of first-generation Covid-19 vaccines, with Chinese companies having developed four of 10 vaccine candidates that are currently in Phase 3 clinical trials. Pandemic-hit countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia see access to Chinese vaccines as essential to bringing their health crises under control.

In stark contrast to China, which has largely contained the coronavirus within its borders, America’s pandemic is spreading wildly, with a new daily record of at least 102,591 new cases on November 4, the highest ever reported by any country in the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed more than 234,000 people across the US.

Biden has vowed if elected not only to overhaul Trump’s tragically mismanaged coronavirus handling but also to reverse his “America First” policy that has eschewed US commitments to multilateralism. But he must first be declared the fraught election’s official winner, and a path to victory for Trump – while unlikely – has yet to close entirely.

“A contested result which leads to litigation and violent street protests will reinforce the narrative that America’s political system is broken and that the country is in decline. If Biden wins, one of the most important tasks he faces is countering that narrative,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Beijing will use a contested election, together with America’s fumbled response to the coronavirus, to argue that its political system is superior to democracies,” he added. But for member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), distrust in one major power may not mean greater trust in a rival power, say analysts.

Still, the message is one that could find resonance among ASEAN leaders who are skeptical of the Trump administration’s ideological framing of US-China competition on freedom versus authoritarian terms, a narrative with built-in appeal elsewhere in the democratic world but less so in a region with few democratic or liberal governments.

“The contrast between the democratic and authoritarian models, as exemplified by the US and China respectively, is a false binary in Southeast Asia. Political ideology isn’t a preoccupation in the region in the same way as it is in other parts of the world. ASEAN’s membership alone is testament to this,” said ISIS Malaysia’s Noor.

While containing the pandemic and stimulating the US economy would be Biden’s first priorities, the question facing Southeast Asian observers is how his administration would approach a more confident and assertive China, and to what extent his administration would be saddled to the legacy of the Barack Obama presidency.

The Obama administration, which Biden served under as vice president from 2009 to 2017, placed emphasis on the region through his “pivot” to Asia policy and championing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which included a number of ASEAN signatories but deliberately excluded China in a US bid to write the rules for regional trade.

While his more focused regional diplomacy was welcomed throughout ASEAN, some in the region believe Obama erred by taking a perceived as cautious stance toward China and being too reluctant to exert US power, opting for a technocratic approach that came undone when Trump withdrew America from the TPP in 2017 on his first day in office.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Despite the Trump administration’s avowed strategic focus on Southeast Asia as part of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, key diplomatic posts in the region were left unfilled and the president himself often failed to turn up at ASEAN summits, reflecting an underappreciation of the region’s strategic importance, say critics.

Southeast Asian nations have been impacted in various ways under Trump, with countries like Vietnam benefiting from his trade war against China as a result of supply chain diversification, while other trade-geared nations like Singapore were pushed toward the brink of recession in part as a disruptive consequence of unilateral American tariffs.

A new Cold War atmosphere has taken hold partly by virtue of Trump becoming the first US president to comprehensively challenge China, which has raised pressure on ASEAN members to choose sides between the two superpowers and take firmer stances on issues of concern, stoking fears of the region being split into rival US and China-aligned blocs.

“If Biden wins, Southeast Asian countries will be looking for a president that is more engaged with multilateralism and less transactional. But they will not welcome a strong human rights and democracy agenda, and will be very apprehensive about the intensification of Sino-US rivalry,” said ISEAS’ Storey.

Throughout most of his decades-long political career, Biden reflected a previously mainstream consensus that the US and a rising China stand to benefit from deeper economic cooperation. He may now assume the presidency in an era where a hardened, tough stance against China has become one of the only issues of bipartisan consensus.   

“There is widespread agreement in the United States at present that China is a challenge or even a threat that must be treated seriously. Where Democrats and Republicans disagree is on what the best means of contestation with China ought to be, not whether there should be contestation,” said Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

With Beijing more explicitly attempting to reinforce to ASEAN members the benefits of working with China rather than the US, analysts say a Biden administration would likely keep up pressure on Beijing while opting for greater engagement with Southeast Asia and beyond to build more effective alliances capable of pressuring China.

While the region would continue to be seen through the lens of a US versus China contest for influence irrespective of the US election outcome, analysts say Southeast Asia nations would favor a recalibration of US policies to be more in sync with regional mindsets and broader preferences for engagement and cooperation with China despite differences.

Joe Biden would likely approach strategic Southeast Asia in different ways than Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

“Washington has a lot of work to do to regain credibility in the region,” said Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. “For the most part, ASEAN nations were put off by the Trump administration’s obsession with rectifying trade deficits and imposing sanctions, while trying to enlist them in a China containment strategy.

“They will be looking for a less ideological and more holistic approach from the Biden government that includes more economic engagement and fewer unilateral impositions such as tariffs. Biden is likely to continue to focus on the US-China competition, but [with] more traditional tools of US foreign policy [and] an emphasis on multilateral diplomacy.”

“If Trump wins out in a contested electoral scenario, Southeast Asia will have to face a less restrained and more vindictive and reactive Washington. Trump may seek to underpin his political legitimacy at home by triggering a war with China – whether inadvertently or intentionally – and trying to drag in unwilling ASEAN partners,” Marston added. 

Should Trump win another four years in office, Southeast Asia would by and large welcome Washington’s deeper engagement in regional institutions like ASEAN. Vietnam may be relatively comfortable with a degree of continuity, while others like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore would be particularly wary of US pressure to pick sides.

“While most ASEAN members wish to strengthen their ties with Washington, especially in the diplomatic and military domains, their geographical proximity to and economic dependence on Beijing mean that significant decoupling from a resurgent China is probably unrealistic,” said Wyne of the Eurasia Group.

“Southeast Asian nations will continue to hope that they will not be forced to make a strategic ‘choice’ between the United States and China.”

Some analysts speculate that Beijing actually favors a Trump victory, in the belief that it would lead to the further erosion of America’s post-war alliance network, something that would be beneficial to Beijing in the long-run and leave it more favorably positioned to fill the global leadership vacuum left vacant by an administration inclined toward unilateralism.

A US election protester on November 4, 2020. Image: Getty via AFP

“China will likely benefit more so under a Trump presidency because of the unpredictability and erratic behavior of the administration. This scenario will likely favor Beijing as it will be seen as the only constant in an uncertain political landscape,” Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education.

While Biden has not declared victory, he said enough states have been won to clinch the electoral votes needed to win the presidency, while his campaign has launched a website to begin the transition to a Democratic-controlled White House. It remains to be seen whether the Trump campaign’s legal posturing can succeed in altering the trajectory of the race in any of states yet to be called.

“The best-case scenario for ASEAN as the dust settles around the electoral outcome would be one in which peace, stability and the rule of law prevails in the United States. Regardless of whoever occupies the White House in January 2021, Southeast Asian nations will adapt as they have always done simply because their interests demand that they do,” said Noor.