Countries in Southeast Asia, a growing region of more than 650 million people, stand to make lasting deals with the United States and keep China at bay if President-elect Joe Biden works with their prized cross-border dialogue process, analysts in the region believe.
Biden’s expected willingness to strengthen a U.S. role in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc will increase confidence among the Asian leaders that Washington will act predictably as a bulwark against China — neither bowing to it nor over-provoking it — as well as a potential source of trade deals, analysts say.
Washington worries that its old Cold War foe Beijing is gaining too much control over a disputed Asian sea despite rival claims by four association members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. U.S. President Donald Trump’s government sends naval ships to the sea as warnings while helping to arm and train militaries in states near China.
But Trump’s hands-off approach to ASEAN, a 53-year-old process trusted around Southeast Asia, has given China an opening to influence those governments, said Carl Thayer, University of New South Wales emeritus professor.
China is exerting “soft power” in Southeast Asia on issues such as post-pandemic economic relief and climate control, Thayer said. Beijing sends officials to ASEAN events and makes proposals there.
“Any multilateral group, ASEAN in particular, needs the full U.S. participation as a counterweight to China,” Thayer said. “Without it, the other members of that multilateral group are put in a position of relative weakness.”
Trump’s approach to Asian leaders has come off as “unsettling,” especially when he asked ally South Korea in 2017 to pay for a U.S. military installation there, said Manu Bhaskaran, CEO of the Singapore-based research firm Centennial Asia Advisors. The president's meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were “sudden decisions” too, Bhaskaran wrote in a November 16 commentary for The Edge Malaysia Weekly news website.
Trump attended ASEAN events only in 2017, sending other officials in 2018 and 2019. He spurned multi-country free trade and upset the World Trade Organization this year over a tariff levy against China. Trump’s government withdrew this year from the World Health Organization.
Biden is expected to plug back into multilateral organizations because his Democratic Party has a record of doing diplomacy that way, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.
“At least there’s a framework that the U.S. will work with ASEAN, not go it alone,” Araral said. “It’s a short-term relief, because it reduces the friction and uncertainty and the brinksmanship. At least it buys ASEAN some time, some honeymoon period between U.S.-China.”
The United States must “engage” ASEAN to resist China as well, said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila. Despite resentment of China for taking control of islets in the disputed South China sea and passing ships near other countries’ coastlines, Southeast Asian governments look to the Asian superpower for trade and investment.
On paper ASEAN sides neither with China nor the United States, but many of its members are decades-old American allies.
A more engaged United States could start talks with ASEAN on a trade deal, experts point out. “ASEAN would be receptive to whatever economic overtures that the U.S. would be coming up with,” Rabena said.
China and ASEAN, a growing consumer market, agreed in 2009 to form a free trade area. Much of Southeast Asia depends on export manufacturing and values the large U.S. market.
As a president-elect “committed to institutional processes”, Biden will probably make policy decisions based on “careful deliberations using expert knowledge”, Bhaskaran writes.
Biden will probably hear out the views of Asian leaders too, the CEO adds. The new U.S. government “can take a more proactive step in engaging ASEAN as a whole more in terms of its Indo-Pacific and various other strategies,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.