11 July 2024

US President Joe Biden has benefitted from good Karma, because the outcome of the midterm elections on 8th November, which are still being counted, show that he has fared better than expected. Republican politicians, in particular the election deniers, have not won as much as pollsters had predicted.

Biden can now board Air Force One and leave for Phnom Penh and Bali to deliver his important message that America is back. After all, it was his intention since taking up the presidency two years ago to do just that.

It is interesting to note that, despite the US’s growing involvement in the war in Ukraine, American voters are far more interested in issues related to economic hardship, inflation, abortion rights and the future of American democracy. Indeed, the voters are more worried about the high cost of living, caused primarily by high gasoline prices. They thought that the Biden administration should have the chance to pursue economic stimulus policies which have already been approved. The votes show that the Republicans may recapture the House of Representatives this time, thus presenting obstacles to the passing of important legislation, but it will be harder than if the Republicans had won by a landslide. The Senate seat votes are also still being counted and the Democrats could win by a narrow margin.

Biden’s planned trip to Asia will reaffirm the US policy towards the Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN at the centre. Make no mistake, ASEAN is alive and kicking, as 9 members try to find workable measures that would help end the tragedy caused by the current military junta in Naypyidaw. With his attendance at the ASEAN-related summits, the declared US policies regarding the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, as well as Mekong-US Partnership action plans, will be on track. More importantly, the US’s status will be elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the ASEAN summit.

US ties with the region are becoming more complicated, due to the hard-line approach adopted by the Biden administration towards China and Russia. All countries in the region have maintained close ties and cooperation with China. The “Middle Kingdom” has become the No. 1 trading partner and its investment is growing as well. As far as the region is concerned, overall ties with Russia are benign. Most just want to maintain the current status of their relations with Russia without any disruption. So far Singapore is the only exception.

For the next two years, Biden will have to fight his Republican rivals in the House. It could sap his energy, taking it away from the region. If the war in Ukraine drags on and economic hardship continues unabated, Biden could be ditched by the Democrats as their choice for the 2024 presidential election. Oftentimes, the international community has to deal with the unpredictability of US policies in all domains. That helps explain why the US’s credibility and reliabilities are eroding fast.

Biden in Phnom Penh and Bali and Vice President Kamala Harris in Bangkok must reaffirm the US policy that Washington does not intend to force the region to choose sides as the US engages China. Regional peace and prosperity depend on their continuing relations. In the past several years, both the US and China have seriously harmed each other economically and socially. The two superpowers must remedy this worsening situation.

For the region, as well as for the world, this whole week will be one of the most important periods of the 21st Century, because all the leaders from the countries that can make peace or prolong any conflict are meeting in the same rooms in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. If they fail to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk about peace, then there is no hope that the future of the new international order and rule-setting will be peaceful. They would be condemned by future generations.

Let us hope that all the leaders converging on the region have the common wisdom to restore peace and confidence in mankind.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn