SINGAPORE — The United States’ relations with other countries under President Donald Trump have often been portrayed as antagonistic, tumultuous and unpredictable, with his “America First” stance a stark contrast to the Obama administration's “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.
However, even if there were a change in the US administration with a win by presidential candidate Joe Biden, international relations experts whom Yahoo News Singapore interviewed said they expect tensions between the US and China to persist.
Nonetheless, a Biden administration would see more cooperation and multilateralism in US foreign policy, benefiting countries in this region.
On the other hand, a Trump win would see countries in Southeast and Northeast Asia having less room to manoeuvre strategically and they would be more pressured into picking sides amid intensifying great power rivalry, said the analysts.
Trump, who is 74, goes up against 77-year-old former vice-president Biden on 3 November. Early voting is underway with more than 58 million ballots cast as of Monday (26 October). Experts are predicting a high turnout with over 150 million voters.
Antagonism vs collaboration
Soon after taking office, Trump withdrew the US from what would have been the world's largest trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – in January 2017.
Then in June 2017, he announced that the US would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.
National University of Singapore political scientist Chong Ja Ian describes the Trump administration as “mercantilist and unilateral than strictly inward-looking”.
“They want trade and investment terms beneficial to America and perhaps less so to other partners,” said Assoc Prof Chong.
“The administration does not like being hemmed in by international institutions (such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation or World Health Organisation) but prefers others to defer to it internationally as it pushes ahead on its own.”
Should Trump be re-elected, these trends are likely to persist, he added.
SIM Global Education political scientist Felix Tan said that should Trump win the election, the US might go down an “irreversible” path of drifting away – not just from its traditional allies in Europe and Asia, but also from institutions such as the UN, WTO and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
“That might be a problem: moving away from liberal institutions that the US has built upon since World War Two,” said Dr Tan.
Within Biden’s Democratic Party, the mainstream foreign policy view has become far more sceptical of China, added Prof Chong. However, “there remain voices who believe in the reconciliation and accommodation of China”.
“A Biden victory will probably result in a more cooperative and multilateral US foreign policy that is more supportive of international institutions,” he said, adding that it may be easier for countries to work with the US on issues such as tackling climate change.
However, the US could still assert its authority while seeking greater cooperation among nations and competing vigorously for its interests, he said.
“It may seek to exercise leadership in different ways, such as through international institutions rather than outside. This means that competition within and over international institutions may become more pronounced,” explained Prof Chong.
Similarly, Dr Tan said a Biden administration would involve more engagement rather than antagonism in the way the US handles and negotiates disputes.
The US under Biden would also build closer ties with its allies, rather than going it alone and pushing them away.
He added that the US would likely go back to institutions such as the WTO to negotiate disputes over technology and trade with China.
Prospects for the region
A second Trump term may be advantageous to China in giving it more time to rise as a great power on the world stage, Bucknell University political scientist Zhu Zhiqun told news agency AFP recently.
Beijing would be handed “the opportunity to boost its global standing as a champion for globalisation, multilateralism, and international cooperation”, said Prof Zhu.
As President Xi Jinping seeks to cement his country’s rise as a global power, he has stepped forward where Trump has retreated – presenting China as a champion of free trade, a leader in tackling the climate crisis and pledging to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries.
Meanwhile, Harvard Kennedy School political analyst Philippe Le Corre told AFP that a continuation of Trump’s policies would benefit Beijing as it “partially cuts Washington off from its traditional allies”, giving China room to manoeuvre.
On the other hand, countries in Southeast and Northeast Asia will feel more cornered into picking sides should Trump win amid heightened rivalry between the two powers, said analysts.
“Enhanced US-China rivalry obviously makes matters more complicated for regional actors. Ideally, each country would like to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to managing US-China relations,” noted NUS’ Prof Chong.
But each country in the region has different economic and security needs, and their relations with the big powers will depend on how these needs intersect with Beijing and Washington’s interests, he explained.
A more intense US-China rivalry would mean that it “becomes harder to cooperate more extensively with one side without being seen as harming the interests of the other. There is also the risk of offending both major actors at the same time,” he said.
“The benefits and costs of trying to stay in the middle will also change for the different regional countries, potentially making it a less attractive approach for some,” he added.
Within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), SIM’s Dr Tan said the grouping “doesn’t know where (exactly) it will stand, because it’s so unpredictable under a Trump administration”.
Nevertheless, “Asean will never take sides between China and the US, they will remain neutral and that has always been the case,” he noted.
In the case of a Trump win, Asean would probably strengthen ties with its other allies and institutions such as Australia, the European Union, and even India, Japan and South Korea, Dr Tan said.
For Asean countries, their engagement and relationship with the US under a Biden administration would likely get closer, said Dr Tan. “Asean’s approach has always been to use the US as a balancer in this region against a rising power like China,” he noted.
Should Biden win, the regional group will continue to use that strategy to balance power politics within Asean, Dr Tan added. “A Biden victory could mean more opportunities for cooperation on a variety of fronts,” Prof Chong said.
“That could also mean that regional actors will have to play a more active and prominent role, rather than just avoiding Washington’s ire. However, doing so potentially risks China taking offence – as we have seen in the tough positions Beijing has taken toward Australia, Canada, and Taiwan,” he pointed out.
A Biden win would likely see a renewal in American leadership on human rights, Prof Zhu told AFP. “Biden is likely to be tougher than Trump on human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet,” he said.
The survey, conducted over 17-18 October, shows a majority of likely voters (51 per cent) saying they will vote for the Democratic nominee, while just 40 per cent say they will vote for Trump.
The lead is an increase of three percentage points since last week’s Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at http://t.me/YahooSingapore
Follow Yahoo News’s coverage of the 2020 United States election here.