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Southeast Asia Warms Up to the US Under Biden, with Some Skepticism

The Biden administration has gained goodwill and high expectations among ASEAN countries in the face of growing distrust of China, but the US cannot compete with China as a source of foreign direct investment.

By Dewi Fortuna Anwar

Southeast Asians are predisposed to welcome the Biden presidency after four years of tumultuous US foreign policy under Donald Trump. There is a general belief that President Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to that under the former president Barack Obama, given that Biden served as vice president in that administration. But the United States faces an uphill battle to re-engage and strengthen its alliances and partnerships in the region.

The Obama administration was a strong supporter of multilateralism, prioritised diplomacy as the primary tool of US foreign policy, cooperated with allies and partners to tackle common challenges and paid special attention to ASEAN. These policies were largely overturned by Trump.

Southeast Asian states increasingly see US policy towards the region as a function of the US–China relationship. China’s growing influence in the region prompted Obama to strengthen US relations with Southeast Asian allies and to pay more attention to ASEAN. 

After leaving office in 2016, Biden wrote that the incoming Trump administration needed to continue working with ASEAN to advance a rules-based international order and cultivate a relationship with China where competition and cooperation could co-exist.

Trump’s neglect of ASEAN, exemplified by his failure to appoint a US ambassador to the body and frequent absences from ASEAN-related summits, has contributed to a lack of confidence in the United States as a reliable strategic partner among Southeast Asian countries.

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report showed that the majority of those surveyed had little or no confidence in the United States as a reliable strategic partner. Compared with the Obama administration, 77 per cent of respondents observed that US engagement with Southeast Asia declined under Trump. Despite this, 60.3 per cent of respondents believed that US reliability could be improved with a change in American leadership.

A Change in Attitude

The Institute’s same survey for 2021 — published shortly after Biden’s inauguration — shows a much more favourable attitude towards the United States. A full 68.6 per cent of respondents predict that US engagement in the region will increase under Biden. A further 55.4 per cent considered the United States a reliable strategic partner and provider of regional security.

In the face of US–China rivalry, the default position of ASEAN is not to take sides while enhancing ASEAN’s resilience, including to external pressure. If ASEAN were forced to take sides, however, the ISEAS surveys show that the majority of respondents favour the United States over China — 61.5 per cent chose to align with the United States in the 2021 survey report, compared to 53.6 per cent in the 2020 survey.

The change in attitude of four ASEAN countries is particularly noteworthy. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand all favoured aligning with China in 2020, but preferred to align with the United States in 2021. Indonesia has shown the most significant change in attitude with a 16 per cent swing to the United States in 2021.

The ISEAS surveys demonstrate that China is seen as the most influential economic power by 70–80 per cent of ASEAN respondents. Perceived US economic influence also trails far behind China. China is seen as the most influential political and strategic power in Southeast Asia, although this view’s popularity decreased from 52.2 per cent in 2020 to 49.1 per cent in 2021. The perception of US influence increased from 26.7 per cent in 2020 to 30.4 per cent in 2021.

The Biden administration has clearly engendered goodwill and high expectations among ASEAN countries. In light of Southeast Asia’s growing distrust of China — both because of its economic presence and increasingly assertive foreign policy, particularly in the South China Sea — ASEAN countries are eager to welcome a more engaged US policy in the region.

No Great Investor

ASEAN countries would like to see more American investment as an alternative source of funding. However, the United States faces an uphill battle to compete with China in providing foreign direct investment (FDI) for infrastructure development in the region. For instance, according to the Indonesian Board of Investment, China was the second largest source of FDI to Indonesia in 2019 with US$4.74 billion worth of investment, while the US came a distant 8th with US$989.3 million worth of investment.

The majority of ASEAN member states will welcome greater US engagement, particularly in helping to restore democracy in Myanmar after the recent military coup and preventing the latest political crisis in Myanmar from further destabilising the region. At the same time, given the diversity of ASEAN member-states, Biden’s focus on revitalizing democracy will likely receive a mixed reception. Many ASEAN governments are likely to be apprehensive that the Biden administration will also be critical of the democratic shortcomings and human rights abuses in Southeast Asia as a whole, not just in Myanmar.

Besides great expectations there is also some scepticism directed towards the Biden presidency. The United States faces many challenges on the domestic front, particularly the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19 and the increasing polarization of American society. These challenges may detract from its capacity in Southeast Asia. There are also concerns that like Obama, and unlike Trump, Biden will limit the number of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which may further embolden China. Of even greater concern is the frequent sharp swings in US foreign policy from one administration to the next, which gives a strong impression of US unpredictability and unreliability in the long run.

Editor’s note: This article is republished here with the permission of the author. An extended version was first published in the East Asia Forum Quarterly, “Asia after Biden’s election,” Vol. 13, No. 1. A similarly brief version was published by Eurasia Review.

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