Southeast Asia is in the frontline of great power rivalry, making U.S. elections one of the most closely watched developments for the region. It may not be a coincidence that Indonesia and Vietnam were the final stop in a five-country visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—his last Indo-Pacific push—before the U.S. heads to the polls next week.
As China’s economic clout and military might grow, so does the region’s desire to diversify and engage more partners. But the overwhelming security tilt and underwhelming health and economic facets of U.S. overtures miss the region’s priorities: securing a COVID-19 vaccine and fostering economic recovery. With policy continuity in question, many regional countries also hesitate committing to Washington’s crusade against Beijing, their largest trading partner. Will a new four-year mandate change that?
The results of the election may impact Southeast Asia on three important areas: trade, security, and human rights. New trade arrangements can jumpstart recovery for a region facing its worst slump since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will be the world’s biggest free trade agreement (FTA), is expected to be signed this November. ASEAN, along with dialogue partners China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, are on it.
Another promising FTA, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which comprises eleven Pacific Rim countries already entered into force in 2018. It counts four ASEAN members—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—the last two of which already ratified the trade compact. Its first iteration, the TPP, was once bannered by the previous Obama administration and was seen as the economic pillar of America’s rebalance to Asia. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from it dashed hopes for regional countries eager to access the U.S. market.
His contender, former Vice President Biden, may bring U.S. back to this FTA to counter China’s influence over RCEP and provide an economic ballast for his Asia policy. On the other hand, Trump’s preference for bilateral trade deals and his success in renegotiating trade agreements with Japan and South Korea respectively may lead him to purse one-on-one accords with emerging Indo-Pacific economies like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. This said, his triumph in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) may also embolden him to propose a CPTPP remake to facilitate U.S. re-entry. Either way, U.S. membership in CPTPP will be welcomed by the region and will draw other ASEAN countries to it, notably Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, which already expressed prior interest in joining. Multilateral trade deals are complex and time-consuming. But being there in the process gives one a seat at the table in setting rules and standards for future trade blocs, something that U.S. will miss if it overly relies on bilateral trade deals.
In addition, Southeast Asian countries are also keen to know what role Washington will play in meeting the burgeoning regional infrastructure demand as U.S. itself re-invests in its own domestic public works. The US-led private sector-driven Blue Dot Network launched last year was touted as an alternative to state-backed finance under China’s Belt and Road initiative. Will the region hear more of it under a second Trump serving or will Biden discontinue or reconfigure it?
Secondly, regional countries will assess how high South China Sea will fare in U.S. calculus and how will U.S.-China interaction in the flashpoint impact on regional stability. Freedom-of-navigation operations and naval exercises stepped up under Trump. But it also elicited increased patrols and maritime drills on the part of Beijing, raising the specter of accidents or miscalculation. Belated sanctions on Chinese companies involved in building China’s island fortresses in the disputed sea are moot, and compelling regional countries to cancel contracts involving such firms may only frustrate unrelated ongoing projects. Sanctions on Chinese fishing and survey outfits engaged in unsustainable fishing and unlawful exploration works in the exclusive economic zones of other littoral states may have more value.
Trump may deploy more U.S. Coast Guard ships to deal with Chinese gray zone tactics in the sea, increase arms sales to shore-up air and sea capabilities of lesser claimants, and invite more countries to join an expanded Quad. He may also support Tokyo playing a greater security role in the region as the recent visits of new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to Hanoi and Jakarta portend. But the pandemic may shift resources away from defense acquisitions in the short-term. Since the dissolution of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1977, regional countries are also more likely to join inclusive groupings that tackle non-traditional security threats like maritime piracy or terrorism rather than a big power club geared towards deterring a rival big power. Biden gave few hints of his South China Sea policy other than working with allies to rein in China’s illicit actions. Managing alliance issues, like host nation support, and assuaging allies’ heightened fear of entrapment in a great power conflict will be critical.
Finally, regional countries will evaluate how human rights may complicate ties. Trump’s focus on the China challenge made White House’s scrutiny of Southeast Asian governments’ rights records secondary, if at all. Last week’s visit to Washington by Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, controversial for his alleged involvement in rights abuses during the 1998 riots in his country, suggest how Trump is willing to overlook the past to obtain concessions.
But Biden’s call for a democratic renewal may bode tensions with allies and partners which are either non-democratic or have become more illiberal. Rising nationalism and sensitivity to what is seen as domestic interference can also make conversations about democracy and human rights difficult to both longtime friends and new partners. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, took exception when former President Barack Obama said that he will raise the matter of human rights in a 2016 meeting, setting relations on a tailspin. Early this month, a prominent Vietnamese human rights activist was also detained hours after the U.S. held a human rights dialogue with Hanoi. In Thailand, it remains to be seen how the next U.S. administration will weigh in on ongoing protests against the government and the monarchy.
Washington’s dilemma is how to pressure wayward regional regimes to respect human rights without appearing as imposing values and estranging ties, which may push countries to Beijing’s fold. A nuanced, not simply a moralizing, appreciation of the evolving state-society relations in the region is important. A consistent stand—whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or Southeast Asia—will place the U.S. cause in sound footing. As with the case of the present Trump administration, both the Senate and Congress may also constrain or support the President’s foreign policy. Hence, their composition is also something to look out for.
Rising ambitions of rivals and growing desire for strategic autonomy among regional states raise the bar for America’s role in the vast and fast-changing Indo-Pacific. The stakes have never been higher.
This article was published by Analyzing War