The incoming Joe Biden administration is expected to be more dependable and predictable than Donald Trump’s, a potential cause for relief among Southeast Asian governments that have struggled to read and react to the outgoing US president’s mercurial leadership.
The region, a key battleground for influence between the US and China, may also benefit from a possible de-escalation of tensions between the two superpowers after Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a frequent interlocutor for the region’s foreign policy consensus, argued in June that “the two powers must work out a modus vivendi that will be competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison cooperation in others.”
US-China tensions, which some have suggested have escalated to a new Cold War, could well enter a new period of detente under Biden. Antony Blinken, who Biden has picked as his secretary of state, recently called “decoupling” from China a “mistake” as well as “unrealistic and ultimately counterproductive.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, co-wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs this year that Washington’s goal “should be to establish favorable terms of co-existence with Beijing in four key competitive domains: military, economic, political and global governance.”
Detente, of course, doesn’t translate to friendship or amity, nor will it mark a return to the Barack Obama era’s blind cooperation with Beijing and over attempts to downplay sources of tension.
Michele Flournoy, Biden’s likely pick for secretary of defense, intoned during the summer that “if the US military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan.”
Rather, a Biden-orchestrated detente is likely to refocus the US-China rivalry on the few issues that most greatly affect world peace and stability while trying to cooperate with China on more mutually beneficial tasks, like the pandemic response and climate change.
John Kerry, Biden’s nod as climate change envoy, has experience in dealing with Beijing from his time as secretary of state under the Obama administration. He wrote in an op-ed last month: “Even as the United States and China confront deep disagreements, there is a global challenge that simply won’t wait for the resolution of our differences: climate change.”
He went on to compare US-China cooperation on environmental policy to how the US and the Soviets negotiated arms control agreements, one of the outcomes of detente during “Cold War I.”
Under Trump, nearly all areas of the US-China relationship had become zero-sum. Under Biden, only those genuinely zero-sum matters, like peace in Taiwan and the South China Sea, will likely be treated as such.
“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote recently. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change.”
Southeast Asian states would likely universally welcome a new era of detente. Since 2017, they have complained that the escalating US-China rivalry was pressing them to choose superpower sides, a choice no regional state wants to make. Meanwhile, the US-China trade war has greatly affected regional trade.
At the same time, the region’s leaders will no doubt recognize that detente could give rise to a new host of problems and challenges.
One consequence of the Trump administration’s “Cold War II” philosophy was the return of something akin to the Vietnam War era “domino theory,” in which states are primarily viewed by Washington as either US or China-aligned, or about to switch sides. It also meant the US had to try to demonstrate its authority at every turn.
Hal Brands, Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argued earlier this year: “if countries in the Asia-Pacific or elsewhere believe China is getting the upper hand in its struggle with the US, they will be less inclined to run the risks of opposing it. Lose in a few places, and people in lots of other places might think you can’t win.”
Although never expressly stated, such thinking informed how the Trump administration reacted to the region’s less-than-democratic states.
Its desire early in 2017 to renew relations with treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines, after they deteriorated under the final years of the Obama administration, was partly to prevent them from falling into China’s orbit. The Trump camp thus quickly dropped Obama era complaints about their domestic politics.
Cambodia is a case in point of a regional state that has managed to avoid stiff sanctions from the US, following its erosion of democracy since 2017, because of concern in Washington that punishing Phnom Penh will only send it further into Beijing’s clutches.
But if detente under Biden leads to a perception shift, in which each Southeast regional Asian state isn’t seen as a domino ready to fall to China but rather an independent actor, the policy might work in two different ways in the region.
On one hand, Washington may be more willing to listen to each government’s own views on their actions and policies, rather than seeing China’s menacing influence behind their every move.
On the other hand, the region’s autocratic governments may well lose their bargaining leverage if Biden calls their bluff to see whether they really want to turn away from the US and allow for complete Chinese hegemony.
Detente with China may also go two ways for the region’s wider foreign policy objectives.
Several Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) states reacted badly when the Trump administration failed to send a senior-ranking official to attend the region’s summit last year and later boycotted the adjoining US-ASEAN summit in protest.
A common thread of complaint since 2017 is the Trump administration’s inattentiveness to the region.
That, however, is expected to change under Biden. In August, marking the ASEAN bloc’s 53rd anniversary, Blinken tweeted: “ASEAN is essential to tackling major challenges like climate change and global health, and is central to Southeast Asia’s prosperity and security. President Biden will show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues of common interest.”
However, the concern is what the US might say when it “shows up.”
After all, the Obama administration turned up more regularly to regional events than its predecessor. Yet Southeast Asian leaders also reacted negatively because they felt the Americans were too demanding and overly focused on improving the region’s domestic democratic conditions.
ASEAN’s preference, in a pithy phrase, would be for the US to show up but not to speak up. Nor does the region want a return of America’s “benign neglect” of the 1990s, preferring instead something akin to “engaged indifference.”
Most Southeast Asian nations are unlikely to have a perfect situation with Biden’s camp, which has not only vowed to put human rights back on the US agenda but also to issue stronger demands on states to play their part in regional issues.
“Trump’s more unilateral approach has inadvertently allowed some [Southeast Asian] states to sit on the sidelines even if they were criticized for doing so,” wrote John Lee, an associate fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, in May.
Indeed, since Trump expected so little of the bloc, it easily stayed out of sensitive international issues, not just the South China Sea disputes but also the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, an ASEAN member state.
“Under Biden,” Lee added, “there may well be new and/or greater burdens placed on Southeast Asian states beyond what they have endured under the Trump and Obama administrations.”
Biden has vowed to “build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” But whereas the Trump administration focused on the likes of Japan and Australia stepping up their engagement in regional disputes, the Biden administration may call for greater activity from the Southeast Asian states themselves.
Speaking at a hearing of the House’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in April 2016, in his last few months as deputy secretary of state, Blinken saw that one success of the Obama administration was that “it created a space in which [ASEAN] countries that individually might not have the confidence to take on difficult issues like the South China Sea might feel some greater strength in numbers and collectively.”
Clearly, the legacy of the Obama era is the belief that ASEAN states should take on sensitive issues, including human rights issues within the region, which would severely test the association’s policy of “non-interference” in another member state’s affairs.
Other new areas of tension could arise. The Trump administration, given its views of climate change, said very little about Indonesia and Malaysia’s reliance on environmentally degrading palm oil production.
But the European Union’s plan to phase out imports of these products led Jakarta this year to take its case against Brussels to the World Trade Organization. Until the issue is resolved, the EU is highly unlikely to agree to any free trade deals with Indonesia or Malaysia.
Neither Jakarta nor Kuala Lumpur will be pleased if the Biden camp shows up more often to lecture on the issue, and Indonesian economists have in recent weeks warned that the country’s palm oil producers will have a new fight on their hands with the Biden administration.
If the US pushes ASEAN to play a more active role in regional affairs and fails, because of regional hesitance, it could lead to either Washington focusing instead on bilateral relations with favored regional states, as the Trump administration has done since 2018, or a fracturing of the bloc itself.
Indeed, last month saw a major spat after the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, asked publicly whether Laos and Cambodia should be booted from the bloc because of their ultra-close ties with Beijing in order to “save” ASEAN independence.
Bilahari’s insinuation was that the tenet of non-interference in another state’s affairs may be acceptable for domestic politics but risks endangering the whole region when it comes to foreign policy amid superpower rivalries.
Those who clamor for US-China detente and the pundits arguing that Biden should reinvent former US president Jimmy Carter’s conciliation and values-led foreign policy might recall that the Soviet Union ripped up the relaxation agreement by invading Afghanistan in 1979, an event that brought the hawks back to primacy in Washington.
The Ronald Reagan era lesson of detente was that it merely allowed the Soviet Union time to build up its military arsenal and economic capabilities, meaning it actually increased the prospect of conflict as it gave time to Moscow to achieve certain parity with the US.
Foreign policy pundits in the US are already making similar warnings about the Biden administration following the same path with China. But the question Southeast Asians should be asking of the Biden camp is what will Washington expect from Beijing in return for detente, and what might the US be willing to cede in the region to improve ties with Beijing?