Restoring US Leadership in Southeast Asia: The Maritime Front

By Sumathy Permal

The Biden administration which will commence in January 2021 will likely see a restoration of policies emphasising the United States’ strong position on international issues while strengthening a domestic front ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and its toll on the economy. This article addresses the rebooting of American foreign policy on the maritime front and the strategic outlook in the Asia, particularly Southeast Asia including Malaysia. Malaysian leaders were among the first to congratulate President Biden, an indication of the importance placed on continuing the strong and positive relationship between the two countries in the coming years.

In his first address as President-elect on 10 November 2020, Joe Biden delivered a powerful speech outlining his priorities for the United States both domestically and in global affairs. Among others, he pledged to make the United States a beacon for the world on the foundations of a strong, visible, and multi-faceted foreign policy. In meeting the great power challenges in the 21st century, Biden is expected to project a strong US voice in dealing with competition with China on trade, economic, and security. His speech stressed, among others, that the “United States will never give up and never give in” underscores how the US will deal with China and in particular on military and security development, challenges to the rule of law, and also in the cyber domain.

During a Foreign Policy Address in July 2019, New York, Biden laid out his policy vision for America with the focus to restore dignified leadership at home and the world. It is forecasted that the United States will advance security and prosperity through renewing its alliances with partners including on traditional hard security issues such as nuclear proliferation and great power aggression to non-traditional challenges such as climate change, mass migration, terrorism, and cyberwarfare. These issues revolve strongly around, and have a significant bearing on, the maritime domains. In this regard, Biden administration will have some continuity from the Obama’s administration that China’s development as imposing strategic challenges to the United States. Correspondingly, is also in line with assessments by the Department of Defence (DoD) since 2000 that they will be a threat to the US’s global presence and dominance.

Although, the nomination of Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defence appears to give more weightage to issues such as pandemic, refugee crisis and climate change, Biden will have to calculate challenges and complexity of this century, stress on the need to address shifts in strategic balance from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific.

The foreign policy of the Biden administration must highlight the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic component in dealing with global challenges. Biden pledged in his Foreign Policy lecture that the United States will make the necessary investments in its armed forces while simultaneously elevating diplomatic engagements with partners and allies on global engagements in Europe and Asia. In this respect, the United States will promote a steady and incremental approach in its relationships with its Indo-Pacific partners of Australia, Japan, and India while focusing on building stronger commitments with Southeast Asian countries.

While most Southeast Asian countries facing sharper economic contraction due to the Covid-19 pandemic, economic boost is expected with the conclusion on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020.  In 2050, Southeast Asia countries projected to be fourth largest economy in the world. Its cumulative economic, political, and demographic weight is growing and, as such, will feature more strongly in US foreign policy under Biden than under his predecessor. Southeast Asian nations too will closely watch the new US administration both on the bilateral and ASEAN fronts, in dealing with issues such as geo-strategic competition and in addressing the dilemma faced by SEA in handling the new balance of power conundrum.

For Malaysia, the traditional relationships with the United States that revolve around trade, education, investments, and counterterrorism are expected to continue. However, additional focus will be needed on security and promoting stronger maritime cooperation in areas such as preserving the rule of law and in advocating a diplomatic but firm approach to the management of issues in the South China Sea.

In this regard, if statements by Mr Biden as vice-president are indicative, the region can expect to see greater involvement by the United States. He believed that the United States should remain a committed power and presence in the Pacific and in ensuring secure sea lanes in the region. This position would be strongly in the interest of the US, and in turn help maintain the peace and stability on which economic growth and prosperity can be built.

In conclusion, the administration of President-elect Joe Biden promises a fresh outlook on the strategic direction of the United States especially on global leadership that had retreated somewhat in the last four years. Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations will be closely watching developments in anticipation of a renewed and stronger relationship with the United States and in determining the future direction of the Indo-Pacific Region.

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