The 2020 presidential election has not only divided Americans into the pro-Trump and pro-Biden camps, but this division has extended to the Asia-Pacific region.
In an October 31 article, BBC named Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as Trump supporters due to their fear of a potential pro-China Biden administration that will hang them out to dry. India also falls into the camp, although New Delhi is less vocal about its support than other Asian allies.
Taiwan: The staunchest support for Trump comes from Taiwan. Trump has been the most pro-Taiwan president in U.S. history, and under his administration the island nation has enjoyed upgraded diplomatic status with visits by Cabinet level officials, increased military support from the Pentagon with arms sales, “Fortress Taiwan” strategy, and U.S. Marines arriving in Taiwan for the first time since 1979 when the Carter administration abandoned Taipei in favor of diplomatic recognition of Beijing. Frozen out of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Taipei also needs a gateway to international trade and is upgrading economic cooperation with the U.S. with a view towards an eventual free trade agreement.
Fearful that a potential Biden administration means a de facto third term Obama presidency that is more conciliatory towards China, Taipei sees Trump as “a big brother we can rely on.” Trump is extremely popular in Taiwan with Taiwanese lawmakers wearing pro-Trump face masks, and last month a Taiwanese public opinion poll found a majority (53%) of Taiwanese support the re-election of Trump, with 31.3% saying they would be “fairly happy,” and another 22% “very happy,” for him to assume a second term. When the U.S. election results became disputed, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen had to actually calm the Taiwanese citizens who began to panic amid a sudden Biden vote surge.
Vietnam: Vietnam is also a very strong supporter of Trump, as are Vietnamese-Americans. Both the U.S. and China have fought wars on Vietnamese soil, but while U.S. has been largely forgiven, Hanoi remains fearful of the “China threat.” Vietnamese-Americans also have a personal grudge against Biden, who fought to keep Vietnamese refugees out of the US when Saigon fell in 1975. This, combined with Vietnam’s ongoing territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, makes Trump their preferred candidate.
Hong Kong: In the face of Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, Hong Kong sees only Trump has the wherewithal to confront China.
Japan: Sino-Japan rivalry has a long history in the Asia-Pacific region. With Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Tokyo sees Trump’s tough stance against China as an asset to their national security.
India: India welcomes Trump’s anti-China stance. They have been alarmed by China’s rising power for years and are now engaged in an aggressive standoff with Chinese troops along their Himalayan border, including alleged use of microwave weapons by Chinese troops to cook Indian troops and force a retreat. They fear Biden may take a more conciliatory approach with Beijing and seek engagement on issues such as climate change, and relinquish current Indo-Pacific strategy to strengthen the quadrilateral alliance involving U.S., India, Japan and Australia.
"the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy's days seem numbered." （自由で開かれたインド太平洋戦略の終わりが近づいている。）
Writing is on the wall for US Indo-Pacific strategy https://t.co/L4QPVZLbsy
— 篠田英朗 Hideaki SHINODA (@ShinodaHideaki) November 17, 2020
China: China of course benefits from a Biden administration that is more conciliatory and seeks to return to a traditional policy of engagement. It does not mean the U.S. would stop seeing China as a peer competitor or systemic rival, but at minimum there would be room for engagement, de-confliction, and confidence-building measures between the two largest economies in the world. Initially Beijing was worried about the Obama/Biden administration’s series of violent regime-change operations in Libya, Syria, Yemen and support of Chinese Uyghur jihadists in the Syrian opposition to threaten China’s Mideast oil supply, but after the past years of direct trade wars, Biden now seems to be the less confrontational candidate.
U.S. ally South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and other ASEAN members are somewhere between sitting on the fence or near the Biden orbit.
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur for one prefers Biden. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for one said Biden would take a “more rational” approach to China and benefit smaller Asian economies. He has long been a vocal critic of the U.S,. especially its support of Israel versus the Palestinians.
Singapore: Likewise Singapore wants good relations with its large neighbor. Chinese Singaporeans constitute 76.2% of the Singaporean population, and the small country has persistently called for U.S. and China to de-escalate their tensions.
South Korea: Seoul seems split in terms of its preferences. In the April 2020 general election, there were claims of fraud and that China help rigged the election in favor of the pro-China ruling party, and risk of turning Korea from a consensual multiparty democracy to a one-party system aligned with Beijing. The conservative opposition accused China of using Huawei to commit digital fraud in the election, using Chinese citizens to impersonate election supervisors, stuffing ballot boxes, and claimed as many as 3 million of the 20 million votes cast were fraudulent. The opposition has been critical of President Moon’s pro-China policy and attempts to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as possibly removing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.
Quo vadis for the Indo-Pacific?
Ultimately the year 2020 is the year of reset for many countries. As such regardless of whether there is a new administration in 2021 or 2024, U.S. Asian allies would need to begin thinking about how best to shoulder their regional security burden. In the face of a probable bipartisan U.S. troop reduction and U.S. presence in Asia, it is plausible allies may upgrade the Japan-India core of the Quad and add Taiwan, Vietnam, others under New Delhi and possibly Tokyo’s nuclear umbrella (Japan can build a nuclear bomb within six months) in the Indo-Pacific.