Does the US election matter to S'pore? Why should we care?

What the world's superpower does is relevant to many countries.

Kayla Wong | October 27, 2020, 10:50 PM

The United States is holding its presidential election on Nov. 3, which is less than a week away.

While it is a momentous event for many Americans, of whom a good number have already voted for their choice of president through early voting and mail-in ballots, the impact of the election in a country that is quite geographically removed from Singapore might not be immediately apparent to Singaporeans.

But U.S. political watchers would beg to differ.

U.S. political expert Adrian Ang at Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies tells Mothership that the election does have an impact on Singapore and the region of Southeast Asia.

1. U.S. is an important trading partner to Singapore

To Singapore, the U.S. is a valuable trading partner. The U.S. is Singapore’s fifth largest export and import partner with bilateral trade worth nearly US$32 billion (S$43 billion) annually, Ang said.

The U.S. is also the biggest source of foreign direct investment for Singapore, and enjoys a trade surplus with the Republic.

Given the U.S.’s importance to Singapore, a city-state largely dependent on trade, an administration that supports robust trade with countries in the region will be beneficial to Singapore.

Trump’s four years in office saw a push towards protectionism, withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- a trade deal that was negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama -- just three days into his office.

The move added to the urgency to conclude another trade agreement involving Asean, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as the need to deal with the fallout from the U.S.-China trade dispute and push back against protectionism became more apparent.

But the U.S.’s trade policies with Asia might not undergo much changes even under a new Biden administration.

Ang said that Biden will not revive the TPP nor seek to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) -- a new iteration of the TPP.

He explained that the Biden-Harris campaign’s “Build Back Better” economic plan is evident of the impact Trump has made in “shifting the political and policy discourse on economics and trade away from openness and globalisation, and towards a more protectionist and nationalistic direction”.

And such a trend has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, Ang added.

Which party is better for Singapore?

When asked which party Singapore prefers -- not that we could affect the outcome in any way -- Ang explained that historically during the Cold War, it can be said that Singapore had a preference for Republican administrations.

This is due to the late Lee Kuan Yew’s close friendship with senior members of the GOP (Grand Old Party, another name for the Republicans) foreign policy establishment, notably Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Brent Scowcroft, he said.

But with the end of the Cold War, any partisan preference tended to matter less since both Democrats and Republicans were "committed to open global trading and financial system, and an active presence in Asia", Ang explained.

However, the U.S. party system is currently changing, with the realigning of the two parties’ social group coalitions.

As a result, support for free trade and globalisation now is at its weakest level among both rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans since the end of the Cold War, he opined.

Therefore, regardless of which party is in charge, the U.S. is probably not going to shift much in its trade policy in the region.

2. A superpower’s foreign policy matters to other countries

Ang also opined that with its status as the world's only superpower, how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy affects the countries it deals with.

To illustrate the U.S.’s global importance, Ang cited the country’s large national defence budget that beats the next 10 countries combined, as well as its economy that produces "one quarter of the world's wealth".

He further said that while China's rise -- both economically and militarily -- has been dramatic and has "caused existential angst among American policymakers", it has yet to achieve "peer competitor" status with the U.S.

Therefore, the foreign policy of the next president of the U.S. is going to reverberate around the world, Singapore included, he added.

Southeast Asia prefers a U.S. president who promotes good China relations

The U.S.’s China policy is an area that Southeast Asian countries are concerned about.

This is because stable Sino-U.S. relations are vital to regional peace and prosperity, Ang said.

While Southeast Asia is no stranger to major power competition, countries in the region would very much prefer to stay out of Sino-U.S. rivalry and not get caught between them in the fallout.

And they have made their views on this known on several occasions.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had said explicitly in September this year amid escalating Sino-U.S. tensions, “We don't want to get trapped by this rivalry,” adding that animosity between the two countries was “worrying”.

And while she expressed concern over increased militarisation of the South China Sea, Indonesia has rejected the U.S.’s request to host their spy planes -- a clear indication that the archipelagic nation does not wish to risk being seen as aligned with the U.S. against China, a country which it has growing economic links with.

Singapore has also expressed the same view multiple times, saying the region only stands to benefit when both the U.S. and China are getting along well with each other.

Furthermore, while the South China Sea dispute is a contentious issue for many entities in the region, it is simply one among many issues in their relations with Beijing, Ang said.

Therefore, even though the U.S. is of the view that China represents "a whole-of-society threat", few, if any, states in the region are inclined to subscribe to such a view, and none would want to be compelled to do so by the U.S., Ang elaborated.

Southeast Asian states are instead attempting “a delicate balancing act”, he continued.

“On the one hand, they are trying to balance an aggressive resurgence of Chinese power in the region with the continued benefits of economic engagement with Beijing.

This has been given added impetus as it appears that China is enjoying a V-shaped post-pandemic economic recovery and states will increasingly look towards China to also help drive regional recovery -- much like it did post-Global Financial Crisis.

On the other hand, they also want the reassurance of a continued U.S. security presence without being dragged into a 'full-spectrum' confrontation with China.”

China's importance to the region, therefore, is not to be underestimated.

Indeed, many Southeast Asian governments also see China as a vital part to their economic future -- the region's trade with the country, which is around US$650 billion (S$885 billion) annually, is almost double its trade with the U.S.

A U.S. administration that is less inclined to an antagonistic China policy is, therefore, the preferred choice for many countries in the region.

American foreign policy not likely to change much even under Biden

But similar to trade issues, those looking for a different foreign policy under a new Biden administration is likely to be disappointed.

Matching up to Trump’s tough rhetoric on China, Biden has vowed to go hard on China too.

Ang opined that while a Biden administration will seek to get Beijing’s cooperation where they think it is needed, such as climate change, nuclear arms talks, and North Korea, they will be even more active than the Trump administration in pressing China on its domestic human rights record in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

This is because such issues are a relatively cost-free sop to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he said.

“While a Biden administration might be less overtly confrontational -- I don’t expect to hear the shrill and overwrought anti-communist rhetoric of the current administration replicated in a Biden administration -- Biden’s ‘multilateral’ approach nonetheless seeks to widen the Sino-U.S. conflict through linkages with other issues.

This might constrain the geopolitical space available to Singapore and states in the region and force them into choosing sides.”

The U.S. election, however, does not just affect Singapore on the state level.

It can affect the average man on the street as well.

Whether or not you can buy an Android-enabled Huawei smartphone is perhaps the sort of impact that you might see in your lives, Ang said.

And these are the reasons why the American president for the next four years is going to matter to Singapore and should matter to Singaporeans, he added.

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Top image by Tasos Katopodis & Drew Angerer via Getty Images