U.S. Election: Impacts on the Indo-Pacific
By Perth USAsia Centre
On 9 November, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted experts from across the Indo-Pacific to offer insights following the outcome of the United States election, with President-elect Joe Biden to be inaugurated on 20 January 2021.
Our Chief Executive Officer, Professor Gordon Flake moderated a panel featuring Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador at Large, Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dino Patti Djalal, former Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu, Ichiro Fujisaki, Former Japanese Ambassador to the US, and Melissa Babbage, Vice-Chair, the American Australian Association.
Outlined below are their insights from across the region:
Ambassador Chan indicated that Singapore has worked with both United States political parties over time. In recent years, during the Obama presidency and the Trump administration, the country has kept a ‘solid and stable’ relationship. Ambassador Chan indicated that with Biden taking office, there will be some predictability and reliability for the region, and that Singapore wants to see a stable US-China relationship, as the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
The Ambassador indicated a real concern around the period through to 20 January, with possibility of too many initiatives introduced, which have to be unwound, what could be done that could be difficult to undo. An article written by President-elect Biden was highlighted, published in the Foreign Affairs, where Mr Biden made it clear that domestic affairs was the focus for the short term future, making COVID and recovery from COVID his first priority.
There were a reduced number of officials appointed by the Trump Administration to represent America within the region. Ambassador Chee indicated that moving forward, government and business must come together within the region focusing on Asia, North East Asia and South East Asia. Ambassador Chee called for the United States to make a decision around their involvement, attend the summits and meetings they have signed up for, as well as opting in or out of dealing with climate change and the CTTPP.
Ambassador Chan raised the point that the world had changed, moving into a multi-polar world from a bipolar world. There are many players, including United States, China, India, Japan and even Australia. The Ambassador warned that the United States should lead, or co-lead but not contain. If countries feel they are losing “nobody wants to play that game”. Working with the region could be the legacy of Biden. The Ambassador concluded her remarks by saying that the United States wants to work with China where they can, cooperate with China where they can, and confront where they must. But there is room for working together.
From an Indonesian perspective, there hasn’t be a great deal of affection for President Trump, particularly from the Islamic community. This has included a 1 million person march held in Indonesia to protest the President’s policies toward Muslims. While for the Indonesian government, the relationship was maintained on paper, it is evident the US diplomatic, political and economic capital in Indonesia has declined, and the countries relationship with Trump was not as close as it was with Obama.
Indonesian’s welcome a presidency, with Trump being unfriendly towards the Muslim population. Biden also sent a special message to Islamic voters in the United States that went viral in Indonesia. Biden is also seen as number 2 to Obama, which suggests he is pro Indo-Pacific, pro Asia, pro South East Asia, and pro Indonesia.
From a foreign policy point of view, Ambassador Djalal said the rest of the world will understand that Biden has to get COVID-19 and the US economy under control before turning his attention to his relationships around the globe. ‘He does not want to be like Bush 41 – successful on foreign policy then got defeated at home because of economic conditions.’ Biden has access to the many foreign policy diplomats who signed a petition and refused to work for President Trump.
Ambassador Djalal agreed with Ambassador Chan on the fact that to make an impact in the Indo-Pacific, the United States has to play their part. Economics is at the heart of any relationship between nations, and Ambassador Djalal highlighted that trade between US and Indonesia has been stagnant for the last decade – staying at around 26-29 billion, whereas China trade with the US reaches around 70 billion, and with a new agreement in place, this will soon reach 100 Billion. This highlights the fact that the US trade with Indonesia is still one third of its trade with China, so it’s important for US to ‘step up the game’ on trade, on investment, on education, and technology.
On their withdrawal from important summits and partnerships, Ambassador Djalal indicated that it is not automatic that United States will have a seat at the table, like they did before. He indicated that the country should re-earn their place, and present policies that engage and lead countries in the region.
Ambassador Djalal raised concerns that at times during the conversation, the Indo-Pacific was being framed as a US led movement. He pointed out the many regional designs which are in placed because the region is not being influenced by one major power – including the East Asian Summit, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
When considering the leadership of the Indo-Pacific region, Ambassador Djalal said the United States can promote it, but must know when they don’t have to lead. He also suggested that the United States ironically should follow China’s approach, gaining traction in the region over recent years as a solution provider. Whether those solutions are around connectivity, infrastructure or other issues, it would lead to a stronger foreign policy for President-elect Biden.
Ms Suhasini Haidar indicated that the results of the election was a ‘mixed bag’ for India. India’s President Mohdi has enjoyed increased access to the President, with regular phone calls between the two, there was a visit to India from Mr Pompeo, as he did to Indonesia, during an election year. Trump’s nativist platform, and majoritarian policies match the Indian government policies. Ms Haidar said Trump was a good thing for India on a number of issues – including approach towards Pakistan, approach towards China, with Trump not putting his traditional alliances first, and so the United States was open to dealing with all types of countries who were not traditional allies, a policy which India benefited from. The normal US interventionist policy for the world was also shelved, with Trump’s ‘America first’ mentality.
President-elect Biden also offered positive opportunities for India according to Ms Haidar. With the government dealing with Biden for decades during his time in office, there is likely to be less ‘sudden starts’ as has been the case with the Trump. He will most likely to join the multi-lateral structure, a fact he alluded to in an article with Foreign Policy earlier this year. Ms Haidar believed President-elect Biden will restore United States leadership and rejoin all the things Mr Trump walked out on. She continued that more broadly, India will welcome the return to old fashioned values, Mr Biden represents, that Democratic Party represents, but could be prickly towards any intrusive interest into India’s own domestic democratic issues, alleged human rights violations, laws that have been controversial.
Ms Haidar agreed with other panellists that she did not know how quickly foreign policy could be a priority for Mr Biden, given the domestic challenges he faces, including the countries’ vast polarisation, not just in the election, but in terms in what is following now with Mr Trump not willing to concede.
She suggested President-elect Biden could pluck some low hanging fruit in foreign policy – including concluding some kind of mini trade deal between the United States and India, which has be the focus of negotiations between the United States and the Indian Foreign Minister for more than two years. Ms Haidar also indicated there must be clarify from the United States on China. ‘The world cannot be sitting around waiting for the tweets to come’, which have led to confusion over the status of the United States-China relationship. ‘We are all too invested in the United States, and too invested in China.’
It is also important that the United States decides where they want to go as a country – as this is something that would make a big difference to India and others in Asia. Whether it’s more brinkmanship like the kind seen under the Trump Administration, or a resolution to the US problems with China.
In terms of the Indian government, Ms Haidar indicated the country must get used to reaching out institutionally to the United States, as with President-elect Biden they will not get as far doing just the personal things, and India should he prepared to deal with sensitive issues, and have frank conversations as democracies do, on various issues.
Ms Haidar also suggested that whilst Biden cannot necessarily change migration policies at the moment, he should be securing the countries soft power, tending away from being a forbidding or unwelcoming country. Mr Biden has described America – at its best – seen as a beacon for the world, so changing the current perception around the globe would be another low hanging fruit.
When asked about the United States approach to the Indo-Pacific region, Ms Haidar said that if Biden is looking to build a region that is cohesive, his administration needs to think out of the box – and maybe take a leaf out of the Trump book. President Trump’s non-traditional approach and structures has led to some cooperation between the US and Indo-Pacific countries which have never been seen before.
Ms Haidar suggested there needed to be strong solutions for the region. She highlighted that whilst the United States developed the Blue Dot Network, however besides being a Michelin rating agency, it didn’t go far in terms of putting your money where your mouth is if you like. Ms Haidar suggested there should be a great push to actually making alternatives work and count. She also indicated whilst India has withdrawn from the RCEP, it looks to becoming the primary architecture for trade in the region. Most importantly, the United States should not be moving faster than other partners in the region. The country could present the region with other alternatives, building it into a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based order.
Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki indicated the country would be happy for the United States to return as a world leader. He indicated the country would happily work with any Administration chosen, as it is the choice of the American people. Ambassador Fuijsaki said he hoped that the United States firm attitude continues – on US-China stability, human rights, and democracy.
Ambassador Fujisaki shared his sense of optimism around President-elect Biden’s likely foreign policy approach:
I am quite optimistic about the foreign policy side. Of course the first issue is COVID, but four reasons:
- He had been chairman of foreign relations committee for so long. That’s his priority. He knows people, he has all the expertise, including Iran deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
- In order to compete – I don’t say confront – but compete – with China, and Russia and those countries, you need like-minded countries. The Indo-Pacific strategy will continue to be very important, and I think he will try to reach out to like-minded countries.
- I think, this administration, not like Trump administration would like to do the team play. Not only him – the leader – but others – State Secretary, National Security Advisor, or United States Trade Representative will all play the game.
- Under the Obama administration, they were upgrading representatives and they were coming to summits – unlike Mr Trump, so I think we can be optimistic. The United States must know she’s an elephant, and we don’t want dancing around – we want predictability, stability, and expect that on the Biden team. More than what we are seeing with the Trump team.
Ambassador Fujisaki disagreed that the United States should follow China’s lead as a solution provider, but be more of an influencer, with a quieter presence. He concluded by highlighting that half of the United States are ‘Trumpists’, so an immediate return to the TPP may not be possible, and so the region may have to be patient in that respect. He indicated the election results have been scary, closer than anticipated, and more moderate Democrats and Republicans are what is needed for the region.
Ms Melissa Babbage said the Australian public is relieved there is a result, and there is some curiosity and assumptions too around what the domestic cultural landscape may look like over the next few years. The closeness of the election results highlight the differences and divide that exists across the United States. ‘From a democratic perspective, the ordinary Australian is interested to see how that plays out.’ Ms Babbage indicated that Australia will continue to work from a foundation of shared values.
Like other countries represented on the panel, Ms Babbage said that Australia also hoped there would be greater multi-lateral engagement from the United States, with the need for support through some of the alliances and various multi-lateral bodies in order to embed a rules based model for the Indo-Pacific. Ms Babbage also said it was expected that the Biden administration would look more closely at issues around human rights, especially how that impacts supply chains throughout the region, supply chains which form a critical part of the relationship with the United States going forward.
Ms Babbage highlighted that Biden has had more engagement with Australia than President Trump had at the time of his election. The Biden team is likely to include many people who have had previous dealings with Australia in various capacities. She expected President-elect Biden’s legacy would be around Climate change and what he himself has termed – ‘the soul of the nation’.
She expected that climate change would form the focus of the early pillars of reengagement, from a multi-lateral sense – including as part of the Paris Accord, something Australia will work with the US on. Ms Babbage shared her optimism about the United States and its ability to recover from its domestic economic situation. Ms Babbage also said Australia needs to keep embedding the developments achieved so far, such as the Five Eyes Partnership which is now delving into critical materials, and also our work through the QUAD (US, Australia, India and Japan). She said these agreements are a way for Australia to build their relationship with the United States.
When asked about what the United States and Biden legacy should be, Ms Babbage said US engagement in the region is important because of values, rule of law and foundations. With an understanding of development needs within the region, we believe the United States has a role to play. Ms Babbage concluded by saying that there is a desire for a new equilibrium, a competitive co-existence across bigger players in the region.
In the lead up to the US election, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted a monthly web series in partnership with the United States Studies Centre, click here for more conversations on this topic.