Democrat challenger Joseph Biden’s rise to the presidency cannot be stopped even if votes are recounted in Georgia and incumbent Republican President Donald Trump wins in North Carolina.
It could be delayed but the former vice president, who tried twice to become the Democrat Party presidential nominee in 1988 and 2008, has been declared the winner of the Nov. 3 balloting.
The 77-year-old, six-time senator from Delaware won after flipping several “red” states from Trump in one of the most hotly contested elections in US history — Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
While a small majority of Americans, mostly in key cities and big urban centers, celebrate the return of a liberal politician to the White House, some of Washington’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region were nervous about possible changes in US foreign policy, particularly towards China and the South China Sea dispute.
Under Trump, countries in the region felt the United States’ relentless pressures on China not just on security but also on trade as big power competition intensified.
Trump’s America was obsessed with preserving its global leadership in economy and security, focusing on an arms race with Russia in Europe and China in Asia, setting aside threats from Islamist militants.
The US Navy in the Indo-Pacific region, for instance, has done about a dozen times freedom of navigation patrol operations in the South China Sea, more than during the administration of former president Barack Obama who had announced a “pivot to Asia” policy during his second term in office.
Washington also vigorously pursued the quadrilateral security dialogue with Australia, India and Japan and planned to expand cooperation with other Indo-Pacific allies and partners.
For long-time allies in the region, like the Philippines, Trump’s anti-China rhetoric was a tremendous boost in terms of material and political support despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s flirtations with China.
Since 2015, the United States has delivered more than P33 billion worth of planes, ships, armored vehicles, small arms, and other military equipment to the Philippines.
Some of the military equipment were brand-new, like drones and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment, and small arms.
The Americans also promised to transfer C-130 transport planes and attack and utility helicopters and munitions to replenish artillery shells and aerial bombs used in the five-month conflict in Marawi in 2017.
But the most important support came in July this year when the US State Department changed its South China Sea policy by openly supporting the Philippines’ 2016 legal victory in The Hague against China.
In the past, Washington maintained a neutral position in the territorial dispute and remained ambiguous on its commitment to defend the Philippines in case of attack on the disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Washington has realigned its South China Sea policy with the arbitration ruling despite Manila’s decision to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a legal framework for the presence of US troops in the Philippines for training and exercises.
Manila suspended the abrogation in June, a month before Washington’s made public its South China Sea policy changes.
Washington’s bruising trade war with Beijing has also benefited many countries in the region, including Vietnam and Indonesia.
The Philippines also hoped to benefit from the exodus of Western and Asian factories from China to Southeast Asian locations.
The biggest prize, however, was the possible return of the US Navy’s ship repair facility at its former home in Subic Bay under a purely commercial deal.
A consortium of American and Australian investors were willing to sink in at least $3 billion and provide some 20,000 jobs to skilled Filipino workers who were displaced when a South Korean giant’s shipyard filed for the biggest bankruptcy in the country in 2019.
As Biden prepares to take over power from Trump on January 20, Philippine officials are ambivalent about the possible changes in US foreign and domestic policies.
Although the Philippines, as a former colony and long-time ally in the region, has been assured of close relations, it would take some time for diplomats and politicians to familiarize with a new set of US administration officials.
The administration of Rodrigo Duterte announced it was ready to cooperate with the new White House tenant but there could be some major changes in US foreign policies, including bilateral relations with the Philippines.
Trump had reversed Obama’s policies, including on climate change, healthcare and trade arrangement. He also accused Biden of corruption during the campaign, alleging he had helped his son win business deals in China, Russia and Ukraine.
Beijing is keenly awaiting Biden’s policy but it remains unclear whether Washington will turn around and improve relations as China aspires to replace the United States as the number one economy and military by 2049.
Biden would probably have to spend more time repairing the fractured American society deeply divided by one of the most contested elections in US history and fixing the economy grappling with the pandemic.
Manila could also feel some pressure from a Democrat president on issues like human rights as some of Biden’s allies in the US Senate have been asking to put a cap or withhold military aid to the Philippines because of Duterte’s drug war and poor human rights record. They have made calls to free a detained senator on fabricated drug-related charges.
Biden, who served as vice president under Obama from 2009 to 2016, would surely not forget that ugly episode in Laos during the Asean Summit in 2016 when the leaders rebuffed each other.
Duterte had no problems with Trump as both are populist leaders, although the American leader remained a political outsider compared with a traditional politician who would like to describe himself as an anti-establishment.
Officials from Manila are hoping Biden, a solid “beltway guy,” will be different from Obama.
Political observers predict the relations between the two leaders will not be as sunny as during Trump’s four years in office. They hope relations will not return to the stormy relations during the last years of the Obama administration.