Will the next president restore US leadership in Asia?

By Melissa Conley Tylser
Research Fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

The American presidential election will be held while international perceptions of the US, particularly in Asia, are at historic lows.

Recent research shows that only 30% of people across Southeast Asia trust the US to do the right thing internationally. Even in countries allied with the US, like Japan and Australia, only 41% and 33% of people respectively have a favourable view of the US.

In Southeast Asia, only 27% think that the US has the most strategic and political influence in the region, with more than a third saying that China is gradually taking over America’s role as a regional leader.

This low base means there’s a lot of room for improvement. But it’s not certain that these perceptions will improve after the US presidential election on 3 November.

To explain why, I’ll look at three scenarios for the election result – and I do mean three – and the implications of each.

1. A Donald Trump victory

While a Trump victory is not considered likely by pollsters – those same pollsters have been wrong before.

If Trump were to be returned, this would have significant impact on perceptions of US leadership across the region.

President Trump has very low popularity in Asia, with few having confidence in the US president to do the right thing in world affairs. The biggest exception is India where Trump has majority support, most likely due to his anti-China stance.

A Chinese magazine shows Donald Trump's face
Even in countries allied with the US, like Japan, only 41% of people have a favourable view of the US. Pic: Getty Images

Many perceive Trump’s approach to foreign policy as “unprincipled, transactional and erratic”, with 77% of people believing that US engagement in Southeast Asia has decreased under the Trump Administration.

However, up until now countries have tended to see Trump as a ‘blip’ that doesn’t necessarily affect their opinion of the US as a whole. For example, only 17% of South Koreans have confidence in Trump, but 59% still have a favourable view of the US.

But if Trump wins again, he can no longer be seen as an aberration. Instead, this would be the ‘new normal’ for the US in the world.

2. A Joe Biden victory

This is the scenario that would do most to increase positive perceptions of the US in Asia.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s election as president would be perceived as ‘back to normal’. Professor Gordon Flake at the Perth USAsia Centre predicts that a Biden win would halt the antagonism towards alliances, multilateralism, international regimes and international law.

The problem is that Biden may not have the political will or wherewithal to reverse the decline in US leadership in Asia.

Joe Biden gestures while giving a speech in front of an American and Chinese flag
A Biden win could halt the US antagonism towards alliances and international law. Pic: Getty Images

First, the immediate focus of the next president will have to be domestic.

US election analyst Charlie Cook describes foreign policy as one of Biden’s passions and thinks that in other circumstances, he’d be getting on Air Force One and rebuilding relationships across the world; unfortunately, he’ll find that foreign policy these days is a “luxury item”.

The next president will have to shore up US power at home, focusing on pressing priorities like Covid-19, racial division and healing a deeply divided polity.

Second, the president may lack the support he needs to progress an active leadership agenda in Asia.

There are calls for the US to turn away from global leadership – from “being everywhere and solving every problem” and instead accepting that “it is a normal country like any other”.

As Australian former defence advisor Michael Scrafton notes, the mood now is less about the restoration of US global leadership and is more focused on retrenchment or reinvention.

This constrains what any president can do.

Congress may not support the US rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, even if the president decides to support this. The machinery of diplomacy has been eroded during the Trump administration, with the State Department deeply damaged by the short stint of previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

With the limited time the president can spend on international affairs, he may focus on other issues – like Iran – rather than on the long, hard slog of working with US allies and partners in the region.

Finally, even if Biden does find time to reach out, it’s not clear that the region would be receptive.

 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump
The credibility of the US abroad has suffered under President Trump. Pic: Shealah Craighead

A survey on Southeast Asia by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies- Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) finds almost 50% of respondents have little or no confidence in the US as a strategic partner.

When asked if a change in US leadership would improve this, 40% say even with a new president, their confidence will remain low.

While a Biden win may go some way towards repairing recent damage, America’s longer-term, soft-power standing remains uncertain.

3. A contested result

This third scenario is perhaps the most damaging for the US.

There are plausible pathways where the election result is not known immediately and is contested, possibly for months.

Some scenarios include Trump refusing to concedelegal challenges to postal ballots, announcement of rival representatives to the Electoral College and a final decision on the floor of the Senate.

However many days or weeks a contested election result drags on, potentially accompanied by unrest on the streets, would be hugely damaging to US prestige.

Stickers read 'I voted' in English and Spanish
An uncertain result would further damange US prestige. Pic: US Government

International leadership is predicated on the ability to manage one’s own affairs. As Griffith Asia Institute’s Professor Caitlin Byrne puts it, competence is the currency of soft power.

In 2020, perceptions of the United States have taken a huge hit due to its poor response to Covid-19 and evidence of continuing racial inequality. The inability to manage the basics of a democratic transfer of power would intensify the perception of a country in decline.

Twice during this election campaign I’ve heard someone ask if the US meets the definition of a failed state; if the election result is contested, it won’t be the last.

It’s putting a lot of hope in one scenario that a newly-elected President Biden can improve US leadership in Asia – particularly with so many problems to deal with at home.

This article was co-published with Pursuit. Banner image: Getty Images


foreign-policy; election Foreign Policy; Election southeast-asia; south-asia; united-states Southeast Asia; South Asia; United States

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