Most of the time, Southeast Asia and its regional organisation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), were not on President Donald J. Trump’s radar. The president was not domestically pressured to focus on ASEAN issues or to quarrel with ASEAN member states on norms. Southeast Asia was simply not important in Trump’s grand scheme of things and would have remained so had he secured a second term.
President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, however, guarantees neither more US strategic attention on Southeast Asia nor closer ties with ASEAN leaders. China will continue its push to dominate in the region, particularly in the maritime domain, and to undermine the delicate framework ASEAN leaders have stitched together, under a US security umbrella, to offset an overbearing China.
The narrative from the United States is that its emerging China policy is bipartisan. Further, Biden’s personal character is more palatable to his Asian counterparts and he is said both to be more institutionally driven and to have less will to unsettle agreements or long-held relationships with allies and friends in the region. At the same time, Chinese moves in Southeast Asia, notably in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, are viewed with particular concern given the long-term strategic interests of the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. The uncompromising attitude of the Democratic Party toward what it perceives as authoritarianism and the role of the military in some ASEAN member states will bring some disquiet to the surface in Southeast Asia when a Biden administration is in the White House.
Regardless of who the next US president is, then, the current strategic environment—defined by a more-inward looking America and a more aggressive China – presents significant challenges to advancing a meaningful US-ASEAN strategic partnership.