US election: No one candidate ticks all the boxes for South-east Asia

It is not as clear as day who will be better for South-east Asia: Mr Donald Trump or Mr Joe Biden.

“There are upsides and downsides,” said research fellow Lucio Pitlo III at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation.

If Mr Trump is re-elected, he will likely continue his transactional, go-it-alone way of dealing with both allies and adversaries, with rancour and unpredictability.

Dr Dinna Prapto Raharja, an Indonesian expert on international relations, said: “Everyone, including Indonesia, must anticipate his erratic actions, his unplanned actions that are based on his wishes to win at all costs.”

This is not entirely a bad thing for the region, especially for nations with enough leverage to wrangle good terms, like Vietnam, which can provide sanctuary for US firms fleeing China and be a counterbalance to Beijing’s ambitions as the superpower in Asia.

Mr Trump is also not keen on interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations, which will be comforting for strongmen such as Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

“Trump will be better for the current (Thai) regime due to his pragmatism and ignorance of domestic issues anywhere in the world,” said Dr Pongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer on international relations at Chulalongkorn University.

Mr Biden is expected to bring to the table what the region sorely needs: a return to multilateralism.

That may, among other things, mean the US will rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which will be a boon for Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, as the world tries to recover from Covid-19’s financial impact.

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But Mr Biden is also likely to focus on human rights, and create a tailwind for pro-democracy movements in the region. That will ruffle feathers in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, where governance and civil liberties form a complicated mix.

As for regional security, both men will not significantly alter the dynamics, which are dictated in large part by the rivalry between the US and China to be the dominant force in the region.

Asean will have to continue navigating a thin middle ground and enhance its defence ties with the US without inviting reprisals from Beijing.

As for dealing with the pandemic, Mr Pitlo said: “The commitment to multilateralism and support for a pandemic response and economic recovery, versus an impression that America disdains multilateralism – I think Biden exudes a better aura in terms of getting countries on board (a global pandemic response).”

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Additional reporting by Tan Tam Mei in Singapore and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Jakarta

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