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Asia and the United States after the election of President Biden

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People look at a TV screen showing news of US President Joe Biden after his inauguration, in Hong Kong, China, 21 January 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu).

In Brief

The presidency of Donald Trump must go down as one of the most extraordinary in American history. Diplomacy in the conduct of international relations was replaced by unrestrained economic warfare and destabilisation of alliance relationships. Bluster and bullying were favoured over dialogue and reasoning to persuade others, notably but not only China, as a path to resolve well-founded complaints that might better serve both their and US global interests.


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After the Second World War, the United States was pre-eminent among the powers that made the international rules. Others followed, not only persuaded by the overwhelming weight of US power but also by the universal moral force of US leadership. During Trump’s four years in the White House that habit somehow outlasted US adherence to the principles that underpinned the global order it had created. US adherence to the rules was in tatters. But the idea of US-sanctioned global rules continued to inspire those that kept the faith despite their better judgment, mainly because other options appeared more desperate, particularly as anxieties grew about where China might be heading.

In the US conduct of relations with China, every hostile act was met with a hostile Chinese reaction. Nowhere is this dynamic seen more clearly than in Australia’s treatment as its surrogate big-power posturing got ahead of its middle-power status in the conduct of the relationship with China.

While President Joe Biden has wound back the psychology that came to dominate under the Trump administration — an instinct to contain or, at the extreme, to pre-emptively cripple China if the pretext could be manufactured — US alarm about the potential of China to outcompete it economically and technologically is now nationally entrenched and bipartisan.

Dimmed Southeast Asian perceptions of the United States as a partner are vividly reflected in the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute’s The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report, which reveals that the majority of the regional policy community surveyed had little or no confidence in the United States as a reliable strategic partner. Only 30.3 per cent had some confidence and just 4.6 per cent had full confidence. The survey also showed that 60.3 per cent of respondents believed that this gloomy view could be reversed with a change in US leadership. After Biden’s election, the same survey, in early 2021, suggests that 68.8 per cent expect US engagement with Asia to increase under President Biden. Although three quarters of those surveyed saw China as the region’s pre-eminent economic power, perceptions of China’s political and strategic influence waned between 2019 and 2020, from 52 per cent to 49 per cent, while that of the United States swelled from 26.7 to 30.4 per cent.

Can Biden fulfill these gathering expectations from US allies and partners in Asia?

Few American administrations in living memory face as arduous a set of domestic and external policy challenges as that led by President Biden. The task that faces the new team in Washington as nothing short of herculean: arrest the scourge of COVID-19, grow the economy and begin once more to address the historic grievances of racial injustice and socioeconomic inequality. How it handles those tasks will profoundly affect its capacity to prosecute an effective foreign policy.

It is in Asia that the new president’s foreign policy task looms largest. So much has changed since Biden left the vice-presidency four years ago. China’s rise, having taken an even stronger authoritarian turn, represents the biggest test for American primacy since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Since taking office, Biden has given no indication that he will falter in a policy of ‘strategic competition’ with China across a broad range of policy fronts. After the Trump presidency frayed so many nerves, confidence in the return of competence to America’s regional posture is high. But US allies and partners in Asia, while looking for a surer US tread in this part of the world, especially on trade and investment, will resist pressure to add to the clamour for a new Cold War with China.

Today we launch a new issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia after Biden’s election’, edited by James Curran. As its eminent contributors make clear, a ready mix of problems await Biden and his team of familiar, and highly experienced, foreign policy faces. Among other subjects, they ponder the fate of the US–China trade war, the limits to achieving an ambitious national climate policy, the ongoing challenges on the Korean peninsula, in South and Southeast Asia, and the likely financial constraints on a more forward-leaning US military posture. US allies have always asked for more but given the new administration’s domestic preoccupations — it has already signalled that its foreign policy will be judged by what is good for the American middle class — Washington may well give a new meaning to ‘burden’ sharing over the life of this presidential term. A much less discordant tone emanating from the Oval Office has already soothed the allied ear. But the next four years will no doubt reveal once more the strains and stresses inherent to maintaining Pax Americana in Asia.

In our lead article this week, from the new East Asian Forum Quarterly, Paul Heer cautions that Biden’s team is careful not to overestimate US leverage over China in the region and frames the overarching goal of China strategy as ‘coexistence on terms favourable to US interests and values’. ‘Biden has acknowledged the need to salvage America’s reputation and rebuild confidence in US leadership’, says Heer. That won’t be easy, but ‘the good news for East Asia is that [Biden’s team is] emphatic about their determination to reinvigorate US alliances and partnerships [in Asia].’ Above all, Heer warns, ‘the United States must avoid the risks of taking allies for granted — presuming that their ideas on how best to deal with China are identical to Washington’s, for example, or forcing them to choose between Beijing and Washington’.

Much of East Asia has already adapted to a new regional security dynamic, says Heer, so the United States cannot simply ‘catch up where it left off’. The challenge for Washington, he concludes, is to work ‘closely with its allies and partners to understand where it now fits in East Asia’s balance of power and use that as the foundation for a renewal of American leadership in the Asia Pacific’.

The Biden administration’s diplomacy in Asia has now kick-started with the Quad leaders’ summit over the weekend and a meeting with high-level Chinese officials in Alaska this week that should lay the groundwork for a Biden–Xi summit. These are the first bold, easy steps in recalibrating America’s posture in Asia. What follows is a more complex and subtle diplomatic task; one that embraces Southeast Asia as an important player, not just a pawn, in securing balance and the measure of cooperation necessary from China for regional political stability.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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