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Foreign Policy

What Will Biden Do in Southeast Asia?

Dec 15, 2020
  • Peng Nian

    Assistant Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Over the past four years, it seems, Southeast Asia has been devalued by the United States, as President Donald Trump’s global diplomatic strategy has contracted. Now, the incoming administration of Joe Biden seems ready to restore America’s traditional influence in Southeast Asia, along with U.S. global leadership.

Biden will shift from Trump’s attitude of withdrawal to a moderate strategic expansion to restore and renew America’s role around the world. In this new context, Southeast Asia, which has long been the focus of great power rivalry, will be one of the prime objectives of U.S. strategic expansion.

Biden hopes to regain support from U.S. allies and rebuild U.S. global leadership by reviving the bilateral and multilateral alliance network in Southeast Asia. He can be expected to engage again with Southeast Asian states — Vietnam and the Philippines in particular — to compete with China and contain its rise.

Given all this, the Biden administration will seek multilateral and bilateral channels to revive its regional ties.

First, the U.S. will promote the integration of its Indo‑-Pacific strategy with the ASEAN Outlook and push ASEAN countries to move closer to its position, which was first laid out in 2017. While in office, Trump has highlighted exclusivity and competition, which is built in to the Indo-Pacific strategy but contrary to ASEAN’s interest in pursuing economic cooperation and inclusive multilateral mechanisms. Therefore, it will be difficult for the U.S. to persuade ASEAN nations to join in the strategy.

The U.S. will therefore try to deepen economic cooperation and expand defense cooperation with Southeast Asian states to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and attempt to contain China’s rise.

Meanwhile, China will seize the opportunity to reinforce its good relationship with ASEAN by making cooperative moves in pandemic control and promoting economic cooperation within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.

Second, the U.S. is likely to renegotiate the CPTPP to compete with China for dominance in the regional economic order. Since the U.S. withdrew from the TPP early in Trump’s term, it is unlikely to return to the modified version. Considering that the U.S. had already reached an agreement on TPP with the other member states, the CPTPP will need only partial revision.

Nonetheless, the founding member states of the CPTPP, such as Japan, will be reluctant to allow the CPTPP to become an anti-China mechanism, as that would undermine the economic integration in East Asia. In that case, the best course is to bring both the U.S. and China into the CPTPP and try to manage their competition within the multilateral mechanism.

Third, the U.S. will accelerate the implementation of the Lower Mekong Initiative to prevent China from expanding its influence along the Mekong River. So far, the U.S. has gradually strengthened its cooperation with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in the areas of infrastructure connectivity, food and water security, education, health, energy and women’s autonomy — through the implementation of the initiative, its ministerial meeting, the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy.

When Biden takes office, he will further institutionalize these mechanisms to give the U.S. an edge in competition with China in the region. China, therefore, will be faced with rising pressure from the U.S. and forced to accelerate the LMC (Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism), as well as properly solve the debt and environmental issues in the implementation of the BRI in the Mekong region.

Last, the U.S. will be committed to restoring the Southeast Asian alliance/partnership network. Specifically, it will give priority to fostering the U.S.-Philippine alliance by deepening defense cooperation and increasing its involvement in Philippine politics and diplomacy. For instance, it is likely to pressure the Philippines to take a harsh stance in the South China Sea.

Moreover, the U.S. will further enhance its relationship with Vietnam and strengthen bilateral cooperation on the South China Sea issue. It can be expected that the U.S. will provide more weapons to Vietnam, increase maritime patrols and law enforcement capabilities and strengthen military exchanges with the Vietnamese Navy, in an attempt to enhance Vietnam’s military strength against China.

In response, China will likely accelerate negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to calm the waters through rules and regulations for all claimant states. As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, China will give positive consideration to face-to-face negotiations on the COC at the China-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in November this year.

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