Biden versus Trump in Southeast Asia: where the rubber meets the road

By Malcolm Cook, Visiting Senior Fellow, at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Expectations of the Biden Administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia are running high, but, like his predecessor, President Biden did not register any meetings or phone calls with Southeast Asian leaders in his first three months in office, writes Malcolm Cook.

Southeast Asian leaders, senior officials and the region’s geopolitics commentariat place great stock in the personal engagement, or not, of the US president with his Southeast Asian counterparts.

In the delicate diplomatic dance that is US-Southeast Asian relations, showing up is half the battle won. President Obama’s personal connection to the region and frequent visits were widely welcomed. President Obama repeatedly referred to his childhood stay in Indonesia, made over ten trips to the region over his two terms, and visited his childhood home in Jakarta soon after stepping down. Myanmar and Brunei were the only two Southeast Asian states not to host President Obama.

On the other hand, President Trump was widely criticised for his lack of connection and engagement with Southeast Asia. He only made three trips to the region, visiting a single country each time. The last two were to meet North Korea’s thirtysomething despot, Kim Jong-Un.

Expectations ran high that presidential engagement with Southeast Asia, the region’s paramount measuring stick for “America being back” in Southeast Asia, would improve with Trump’s successor. In the 2020 ISEAS State of Southeast Asia survey of regional policy elites, four out of five respondents (and nine out of 10 Singapore ones) felt that US engagement with the region decreased during the Trump administration, while three out of five thought that the US would be a more trustworthy strategic partner under Trump’s successor.

The reality, however, is that the Biden Administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia has yet to match such expectations. Over the first three months, President Biden’s personal engagement with Southeast Asian leaders mirrored Trump’s.

According to White House press releases, Trump made 50 phone calls with foreign leaders in his first three months. None of these was with Southeast Asian ones, and no Southeast Asian leader was among the 15 that met with Trump in the United States.

President Trump’s Telephone Calls and Meetings with Foreign Leaders (20 January-21 April 2017)

Phone Calls with Foreign LeadersMeetings with Foreign Leaders (all in USA)
15 with Middle Eastern leaders6 with European leaders
14 with European leaders5 with Middle Eastern leaders
7 with Latin American leaders2 with Northeast Asian leaders
6 with Northeast Asian leaders1 with Brazilian leaders (Brazil)
3 with African leaders1 with Canadian leader 
2 with North American leaders 
2 with Oceania leaders 
1 with Indian leader 
Total: 50 telephone callsTotal: 15 meetings

According to this same White House Briefing Room, no Southeast Asian leader was among President Biden’s 27 recorded phone calls with foreign leaders or the nine recorded virtual meetings and one face-to-face meeting Biden had with foreign leaders in his first three months. On 26 March, three Southeast Asian leaders (from Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore) were among the 40 foreign leaders invited by the president to the April 22-23 virtual Leaders Summit on Climate.

President Biden’s Telephone Calls and Meetings with Foreign Leaders (20 January-21 April 2021)

Phone Calls with Foreign LeadersMeetings with Foreign Leaders (all in/from USA)
4 with Middle Eastern leaders2 with Japanese leader (bilateral and Quad)
12 with European leaders2 with European leaders (Ireland and European Council)
1 with Guatemalan leader2 with North American leaders
3 with Northeast Asian leaders1 with Indian leader (Quad)
1 with Kenyan leader1 with Australian leader (Quad)
3 with North American leaders 
1 with Australian leader 
2 with South Asian leaders 
Total: 27 telephone calls Total: 10 meetings

If one includes vice-presidential engagement with Southeast Asian leaders in this first formative three-month period, then the Biden White House engaged less than the preceding Trump one. Southeast Asia is again absent from the ten recorded phone calls Vice-President Kamala Harris and two recorded meetings she had with foreign leaders.

Vice-President Mike Pence visited Jakarta on 19 April 2017, where he became the first US vice-president and most senior US official to visit the ASEAN Secretariat, and while there he confirmed that President Trump would attend the ASEAN-US Summit and the East Asia Summit that November in the Philippines (President Trump’s first trip to the region). The Biden White House has yet to officially confirm President Biden’s attendance at the 2021 ASEAN-US Summit or East Asia Summit scheduled for late November.

In all fairness, COVID-19 has certainly limited face-to-face meetings between leaders, and it still has not been announced if this year’s ASEAN-US Summit and East Asia Summit will be virtual or face to face. US diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asia also is much deeper and broader than the focus on presidential visits and phone calls. The new US House of Representatives recently passed the Southeast Asia Strategy Act that was sponsored by a member of the Republican party minority. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in regular phone contact with his Southeast Asian counterparts, as has National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Blinken met the Bruneian foreign minister last Monday in London.

However, Biden’s lack of engagement with Southeast Asia is in sharp contrast to that with Japan. Japan’s prime minister Suga Yoshihide was the first Asian leader Biden called and the only one Biden has called twice. Mr Suga is the first leader to meet Biden in person. He also joined Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in the inaugural Quad Leaders’ Summit in late March.

The Indo-Pacific region was a clearer focus of President Biden’s personal diplomacy in the first three months of his term than it was of President Trump’s. As measured by presidential phone calls and meetings, this focus has concentrated on the Quad and the other Quad members, not on Southeast Asia.

Malcolm Cook is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. He was the inaugural East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute where he remains a non-resident fellow and former Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University of South Australia.

Banner image: US President Joe Biden speaks with world leaders - January 22, 2021. Credit: The White House, Flickr.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's online journal Fulcrum on May 7, 2021.