US national security adviser Robert O'Brien (right) and Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin elbow-bump at the Department of Foreign Affairs office in Manila on November 23, 2020. Photo: AFP / Eloisa Lopez / Pool

In what could be the Trump administration’s last Indo-Pacific push before passing the torch to the incoming Biden leadership, US national security adviser Robert O’Brien toured Vietnam and the Philippines in late November. It was a follow-through of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s five-country trip that included stops in Indonesia and Vietnam days before the US elections last month.

O’Brien’s visit underpins the importance of Southeast Asia in US policy toward the mega-region as great-power rivalry with China intensifies. But as regional countries diversify partners and hedge against risks from an increasingly uncertain geopolitical landscape, Donald Trump’s absence in key regional meets has undermined Washington’s position – a situation President-elect Joe Biden is poised to reverse.    

The changing of the guard in the White House brings into question the extent of policy continuity or discontinuity that will take place. For sure, all are bracing for continued great-power competition.

The emerging public and bipartisan consensus in the US on being firm in dealing with China will be sustained. But the way this strategic contest will be waged, which tools will be employed, and the spaces for cooperation that will be opened, if any, remain variables. More important, the role and agency of third countries, including those in Southeast Asia, where this jostling for influence takes place needs to be factored. 

While seen as disruptive, erratic and unilateralist, Trump leaves a legacy of being tough on China in a broad range of issues such as trade, technology and the South China Sea. This hardline posture may have emboldened other countries in the region to stand up against Chinese assertiveness in contested spaces.

O’Brien’s visit late into the Trump administration may have also forestalled any possible attempt on the part of Beijing to take action over flashpoint areas before a new leadership takes over the White House next year. But such a hawkish stance could also create expectations that some countries may hope the next administration will carry it over, leading to disappointment if they are not sustained.

From here on until Biden’s inauguration on January 20, Asia-Pacific countries are unlikely to stick their necks out knowing that a shift in US policy may take place. O’Brien attenuated concerns over a break and affirmed enduring US commitment to regional peace and stability, its alliances, and a rules-based maritime order that can weather the leadership change.  

While not shying away from calling out Beijing over a wide range of issues, Trump fell short in rolling out alternatives to Chinese initiatives like the Belt and Road. His tariff wars raised worries about fueling a return to protectionism. Threats to label not only China, but also Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, as engaging in currency manipulation unsettled ties with fast-growing Southeast Asian economies.

His penchant for bilateral trade deals goes against regional aspirations to build multilateral trade pacts, as the recent conclusion of the world’s largest free-trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, showed.

China’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – whose early incarnation the Obama-Biden administration championed and which Trump withdrew the US from – will certainly raise the pressure on Washington.

If Washington fails to commit to multilateral trade deals, it may give more space for Beijing to shape the future of trade governance. But appetite in the US for free-trade agreements at a time of growing trade deficits with Asian trade partners coupled with a pandemic-induced recession may present challenges for Biden.

Furthermore, although Southeast Asia is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Trump administration failed to give due weight to the region’s enduring organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. For the third year in a row, Trump did not show up in the recent East Asia and ASEAN-US Summits hosted by Hanoi.

Instead, he once again delegated the job to O’Brien, a slight not lost to regional countries. For regional countries investing in community-building despite their individual differences and asymmetries, it was a signal that they least expected from a key partner.

As a grouping of small and middle-sized countries, ASEAN members also try to mitigate their individual shortcomings by leveraging their collective strength. But by downgrading engagement with ASEAN, Trump gave the impression that the US was putting more premium on working with stronger, though less institutionalized and narrowly focused, blocs like the Quad and the Five Eyes.

This undercut efforts at coalition-building and upset long-standing allies and emerging partners in the region.

In the last four years, US policy toward the region has made it difficult for countries to predict and cushion against adverse consequences. In fact, worries about provoking last-minute Trump reactions delayed congratulatory messages to President-elect Biden well after the election.

Trump cannot bind his successor any more than he was bound by his predecessor Barack Obama. Hence, while O’Brien may have wanted to achieve more, his visit, at this stage, could only be more symbolic than substantive. And if Trump’s reversals of Obama’s foreign-policy gains were any indication, pendulum swings in US diplomacy under Biden’s watch cannot be ruled out, not least in Asia.  

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.