Projected U.S. president-elect Joe Biden will energize Southeast Asian countries that spar with the more powerful China over the disputed South China Sea by siding with them without inviting armed conflict, analysts believe.
These analysts are looking to the record of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration – in which Biden served as vice president – for clues to what Biden might do in the region.
Obama pursued what his government described as a “pivot to Asia” from 2011 as the region became more vital to U.S. economic interests. He tried to enhance military agreements with five Asia-Pacific treaty allies, promoted the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade deal – which Trump dropped in 2017 – and launched a youth program aimed at building people-to-people relations.
Based on that record, scholars say Biden can be expected to put more emphasis on diplomacy, rather than the sort of military moves favored by President Donald Trump, which have included naval ship passages through disputed waters and arms sales to China’s regional rivals.
Trump’s approach has unsettled some Southeast Asian leaders, who seek stable relations with both superpowers. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam vie with China in the maritime sovereignty dispute -- while depending on the same communist neighbor for economic help.
Those countries, through their negotiating bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should now expect a U.S. leader who will support them in working out a maritime code of conduct with China, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
China and ASEAN have been striving for such a code, aimed at preventing mishaps, since 2002. China had stalled for years until reviving the idea in 2017.
U.S. officials “don’t have to directly get involved and trigger Chinese sensitivities,” Chong said. “They could just quietly support ASEAN in negotiating the code of conduct. Of course, ASEAN’s game plan will always be aligned with Washington,” he said.
Washington sees many Southeast Asian countries as allies that could help contain China, as needed. China cites historical records to back its claim to about 90% of the contested waterway. Other countries say China's claims overlap their maritime exclusive economic zones.
Leaders throughout Southeast Asia “basically welcome everyone” as long as other powers avoid the specter of conflict, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Over the past decade China has angered Vietnam by sending an oil rig and survey ships into its waters, chilled Malaysia with its coast guard activities and inflamed the Philippines by taking over a disputed fishing-rich shoal. China has Asia's strongest armed forces.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte issued public statements congratulating Biden Sunday, followed by the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, the next day.
Duterte, despite forging a friendship with Beijing since 2016, said via media in his home country that he hopes for improving U.S. ties under Biden based on “shared commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” That language is often used to draw a contrast with China’s authoritarian rule.
Biden has not spoken to any Chinese or Southeast Asian leaders since last weekend, when he and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, were projected to have won the November 3 race against Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
When Biden spoke Wednesday with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga -- a staunch ally under Trump in checking China -- the two discussed a “shared commitment to reinforce the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of a prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region,” the Biden-Harris Transition website says.
China is tentatively optimistic. Trump has challenged Chinese leaders on trade, technology and consular issues as well as maritime sovereignty.
“Biden entering the White House is expected to provide an opportunity for breakthroughs in resuming high-level communication and rebuilding mutual strategic trust between the two major countries,” the country's state-managed Global Times news website said Sunday.
However, scholars say China’s increased pressure on Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea over the past four years will compel Biden to continue some of Trump’s countermeasures, such as the U.S. Navy's freedom of navigation operations.
“I actually see escalation in the South China Sea as a predetermined reality that we have to deal with, because the U.S. cannot not do FONOP operations in the South China Sea, and the Chinese will react, which means that the friction points continue to exist regardless of who is president,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. FONOP is an acronym for freedom of navigation operations.
Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school, predicted that Biden will try keep up pressure on China partly to show that his Democratic Party can be tough enough to deter Trump's Republicans from running a hawk against him in 2024.
“They will probably move away simply from dialogue because I think Americans already knew dialogue will not give them an upper hand in relation to China," he said. "There’s got to be some muscle in that dialogue."