Then-Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in 2016 | Photo by US Embassy Jerusalem via Flickr/Creative Commons
After the G7 Summit that marked his first overseas trip as leader of the free world, President Joe Biden declared: America is “back at the table” and “back in the business of leading the world” as he reaffirmed that the US would be participating closely in global issues.
“I think we’ve made some progress in re-establishing American credibility among our closest friends,” stressed President Biden, signaling a new foreign policy that seeks to assert America’s presence on the world stage once again.
Results from the latest survey conducted from March to May by the Pew Research Center showed “a dramatic shift in America’s international image.” Global approval for the US showed an uptick along with “strong support for Joe Biden and several of his major policy initiatives,” with a median of 75 percent saying they trust Biden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”
However, reliability concerns linger, with less than 20 percent saying they see the US as “very reliable” while the majority characterizes it as a “somewhat reliable” partner but, at the same time, do not see it as a model democracy.
“Analysts say this feeling of “neglect” that has lingered over the past few years is also the reason why nations, including members of ASEAN, have been drifting closer to China.”
“Although Biden’s more multilateral approach to foreign policy is welcomed, there is still a widespread perception that the US mainly looks after its own interests in world affairs. More than half in most of the publics surveyed say the US does not take their interests into account when it is making foreign policy decisions,” the report went, with a majority of respondents from the Asia-Pacific region having this sentiment.
Analysts say this feeling of “neglect” that has lingered over the past few years is also the reason why nations, including members of ASEAN, have been drifting closer to China. According to David Shambaugh, Asian Studies professor and China Policy program director at George Washington University, “Southeast Asians would really like the US to be much more present. But the US has a lot of baggage in the region. So there is a kind of ambivalence about the US which arises from a feeling of neglect.”
An article by our friend John Goyer regarding the State of Southeast Asia 2020” report issued by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) based in Singapore surveyed 1,300 policymakers, businessmen, journalists, and civil society members 10 ASEAN member-nations helps put things into context. According to Goyer, who is the executive director of Southeast Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce, “Observers of US-Southeast Asia relations have worried for many years about declining American influence in that region, and the growing skepticism and negativism with which the region views the United States” is due to concerns that the US is “withdrawing from, disengaging from or otherwise neglecting Southeast Asia.”
In the 2020 ISEAS report, a large majority believe that “US engagement with Southeast Asia has declined under the Trump administration,” with the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) resulting in disappointment. This allowed China to step in with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership launch, a free trade pact among ASEAN, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and China.
The China-US Competition: Measuring Global Influence report authored by Jonathan Moyer, Collin Meisel, Austin Matthews, David Bohl, and Matthew Burrows demonstrated “the growing rise of dependence on China around the world. Disengagement by the United States, as well as withdrawal by former colonial powers from regions like Africa, have presented China with the opportunity to use its impressive economic gains to expand its global influence.”
“In the past three decades, however, China has gradually increased its influence in many countries, notably in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. The latter is becoming more dependent on China due to Beijing’s “economic linkage strategy.”
The authors highlighted several key takeaways regarding the “intensifying competition” that has been happening between the two nations. In the past three decades, however, China has gradually increased its influence in many countries, notably in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. The latter is becoming more dependent on China due to Beijing’s “economic linkage strategy.”
A January feature in The Economist succinctly puts it: Asia needs renewed reassurance from Joe Biden. While Southeast Asian diplomats are “heaving a sigh of relief” at Biden’s victory, this is also tempered by skepticism due to past experiences during Barack Obama’s second term that was “marked by a reluctance to exercise power,” said former Singapore Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan. Obama drew red lines in the South China Sea but did not do anything when the Chinese crossed them, Kausikan noted. For us, this was more significant with the Scarborough Shoal fiasco.
No surprise, therefore, that despite the enthusiastic welcome Biden received from European allies, they continue to watch and wait to see how America will play out the message that, indeed, it is back on the global stage.
“Credibility is the name of the game, with the whole world observing if the US will be able to play its traditional leadership role in the global arena. The burden now falls on the shoulder of Joe Biden to prove that indeed, America’s leadership is back …”
In our case, we are also waiting to see if the US indeed has our back on the South China Sea issue, with this expectation triggered by former State Secretary Mike Pompeo, who said during his visit in 2019: “We have your back.” We want to make sure that the US will match its words with action to be there when we do look behind us.
Credibility is the name of the game, with the whole world observing if the US will be able to play its traditional leadership role in the global arena. The burden now falls on the shoulder of Joe Biden to prove that indeed, America’s leadership is back – and he has a rare opportunity to do so with the most important weapon in the US arsenal: the US-made vaccines that could save millions of lives all over the world, starting with the 500 million doses he committed to donate.