Will Trump or Biden be better for Asean countries amid US-China stand-off?

Asia World
The future trajectory of under either Trump or Biden will greatly influence Southeast Asia’s security environment. Whichever candidate wins, Southeast Asian countries will find themselves at the centre of an intensifying Sino-US rivalry, especially over the , where tensions will remain high or worsen.
The Trump administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia over the past four years presents a mixed record. Trump has had very few bilateral meetings with Southeast Asian heads of government. In fact, over the last 11 months, Trump did not meet a single leader from Southeast Asia. Since March 2019, the only regional leader he met was Singapore Prime Minister – in September that year in New York.
Although the White House no longer publishes a record of the President’s phone calls with world leaders, it appears that Trump has rarely spoken on the telephone with Southeast Asian heads of government either. In April 2020, Trump did speak with Philippine President about the Covid-19 pandemic and ways to strengthen US-Philippine security ties.
Compared with the Obama administration, Trump has paid little attention to . The President cut short his attendance at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2017, and in 2019 the administration sent America’s lowest-level delegation ever to the EAS and Asean-US Summit. Because of the pandemic, the Special US-Asean Summit scheduled for March 2020 in the US was postponed indefinitely. The 15th EAS scheduled for November 11 is likely to be a virtual event. Trump’s participation will depend on the political situation in the United States a week after the election.

Compared with the Obama administration, Trump has paid little attention to Asean

Fortunately for Southeast Asian economies, they have not been a focus of the Trump administration’s aggressive unilateralist economic policies. This, despite eight of the 10 regional economies boasting trade surpluses with the United States, with Vietnam’s the largest and most unbalanced. Unlike with South Korea, and Canada and Mexico, the Trump administration has not sought to withdraw from the US-Singapore free-trade agreement – America’s only bilateral free-trade agreement in .

Except for the Philippines, Southeast Asian states have not responded positively to the Trump administration’s push for new bilateral trade deals. Two years after planned US-Philippine exploratory talks were announced, details on them remain sparse.

The Trump administration’s more aggressive approach to China’s economic policies long deemed unfair by the United States, and China’s responses to these Trump administration punitive actions, will have more effect on Southeast Asian economies. The 2020 ISEAS State of Southeast Asia survey report shows that 64 per cent of those surveyed expect these knock-on effects to be bad for the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during an online meeting with Asean foreign ministers in September. The participants discussed rising tensions in the South China Sea amid the escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Photo: AP

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during an online meeting with Asean foreign ministers in September. The participants discussed rising tensions in the South China Sea amid the escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Photo: AP


America’s defence engagement with Southeast Asian states has strengthened under Trump. Under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy, the administration has promoted a networked region made up of bilateral alliances, partnerships and multilateral arrangements. The US government has also sought to increase arms sales to the region while trying to persuade regional states to end purchases of defence equipment from and China.

Since Trump took office, US-Thai defence relations have been normalised, while security ties with Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia have been further consolidated. Because of President Duterte’s pro-China and anti-American leanings, the US-Philippine alliance has come under strain, though the country’s national security establishment has been largely successful in preserving defence ties with America. Most significantly, in June 2020 the Duterte administration suspended for 6 to 12 months its February decision to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement.

The Trump administration’s tougher South China Sea policy has generally been welcomed by the Southeast Asian claimants, especially its support for their sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones. However, there is some concern that a US-China military confrontation in the area could embroil the region in an unwanted crisis.

Overall, America’s image in Southeast Asia has suffered over the past four years. In its annual survey of regional elite opinions in January 2020, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 49.7 per cent had little or no confidence that the United States would “do the right thing” internationally, while 77 per cent believed America’s engagement with Southeast Asia had declined since Trump took office. Three-fifths agreed that a change of leadership in the November 2020 US presidential election would increase their confidence in America’s position in the region.

Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo: AP

Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo: AP


Although US party platforms are not meant to be concrete pledges of action, they do give a general indication of the policy directions the administration will take. The Democratic Party platform makes a number of promises on foreign policy, such as standing up to China over intellectual policy theft and industrial cyber espionage.

But because there is a general bipartisan consensus on China and the perceived threats it poses to US national security, a major shift in policy on China should not be expected, least of all a return to “engagement”, which is now generally seen to have failed to transform China into a more democratic country and a supporter of the rules-based international order. Thus, contentious areas in US-China relations will remain unresolved – Taiwan, , Hong Kong, unfair trading practices, influence operations, espionage etc – and in all likelihood, will worsen.

America’s South China Sea policy under Biden will remain unchanged. We can anticipate an increased tempo of exercises with allies and partners, presence missions and FONOPs. The United States will continue to provide capacity-building support for the Southeast Asian claimants.


Over the past four years, Southeast Asian leaders have adjusted to Trump’s mercurial style of leadership. If Trump is re-elected they will continue to work with his administration on a range of economic, political and security issues. Several regional states are likely to welcome a second Trump term, especially Vietnam – which appreciates his administration’s harder line on China, especially in the South China Sea – and , which normalised relations with the United States after Trump took office.
However, their foremost concern will be an intensification of US-China rivalry – in trade, technology and in the South China Sea and Mekong region. Although Taiwan is not part of Southeast Asia, it is geographically contiguous. Rising tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan would likely have a spillover effect on the region. In the worst-case scenario, if military conflict breaks out over , Southeast Asian states may come under pressure to choose sides even if they wish to remain neutral.

Southeast Asian states will be less enthusiastic about a Biden administration if it adopts a strong rhetorical stand on promoting democracy and human rights, as previous Democratic administrations have done. These concerns would be aggravated if a strong proponent of human rights is appointed as secretary of state.

Concerns about America’s relative decline against China were prevalent in Southeast Asia before Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 presidential victory. Fears about US disengagement from the region and China’s more aggressive use of its growing power over the last four years have aggravated these significantly. A second Trump administration or a first Biden administration will find it hard to address these worries but will need to gain greater regional support for US policies on China and efforts to reassert US leadership.

Ian Storey is Senior Fellow and Malcolm Cook is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

This article first appeared in the publication ISEAS Perspective 2020/112, titled

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