Biden’s Big Job in East Asia
Four years of chaos under the Trump administration have taken their toll
If, as finally looks certain, the Democratic candidate Joe Biden is named US President, hopes of a reinvigorated US presence in Asia are probably ephemeral at best, leaving China, with all of its scabs and scars, as the dominant force.
The one major advantage, however, is that sanity is likely to return to US foreign policy, with no sudden gambits like sending love letters to Kim Jong-un, or inviting Najib Razak to the White House for golf, which mercifully was short-circuited by the 2018 Malaysian general election.
There is a general consensus that most countries will be happy to see the US back to protecting the sea lanes and countering increasing aggression from China, ranging from its belligerence in areas like Ladakh on the Line of Actual Control between China and India to its bellicosity against Vietnamese, Filipino and other vessels in the South China Sea.
Over the past four years the Trump administration has badly weakened US influence in the region, not only by its ruinous trade war with China and the president’s decision to opt out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but US reluctance to exert its influence diplomatically in a long list of controversial situations – the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong, its treatment of Uyghur dissidents in Xinjiang, for two. Trump too often has shown personal admiration for thugs like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines as well as Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping.
Biden, who won the presidency with a bare majority, faces the same problem his Democratic predecessor Barak Obama faced. While the Democrats hold a healthy if diminished majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate, against most predictions, is likely to remain in Republican hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, if he hews to his previous philosophy, set to obstruct any initiatives the Democrats may want to take.
The laundry list of what has to be done is staggering. Over the past years the Trump administration has irrevocably weakened US influence in the region, not only by its ruinous trade war with China, which has resulted in the disruption of multinational trade links, but through the appointment of first Rex Tillerson, an oil company executive, and Mike Pompeo, a political hack, as secretaries of state respectively. The two drove legions of seasoned, capable diplomats out of the State Department across the world. Pompeo especially has romped across Asia issuing threats that the US is no longer capable of backing up.
It is uncertain how long it will take to rebuild the agency. The rebuilding is going to have to take into consideration that the US is no longer the dominant force in Asia. US influence had begun to fade well before Trump came to power. Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was never executed in any real sense, in no small part because a recalcitrant US Congress dominated by Republicans refused to come up with the money. But reality in the form of geography and China’s growing economic and military clout have intruded. Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have gradually swung into China’s orbit
Beyond that, neither Pompeo nor Tillerson – let alone Trump – was capable of understanding the painstaking work that went into building relationships. Trump himself blundered across the landscape believing he could charm Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un into acknowledging the US as the world’s preeminent power. Both ran circles around him.
In the US absence, China, which is the only country in the world to have attained full control over the Covbid-19 virus, instead has taken primacy through its multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is building railways in the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia and Thailand among other countries, ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and other infrastructure in Africa and elsewhere – and making a pretty penny in the process. The American riposte, the so-called Blue Dot Network, is late, inadequate and has never got off the ground.
While the Biden administration appears likely to seek to return to Obama-esque diplomatic and trade philosophy to rebuild the alliances, accords and trade links abandoned by the Trump administration, it is questionable how much influence the US can have. Sometime in the next few weeks for instance, the members of ASEAN plus Australia, Japan. South Korea and New Zealand – and, significantly, China – are expected to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which covers about 40 percent of global trade and some 45 percent of the world’s population.
The United States has not been involved in formulating the RCEP, which looks likely to favor China over US interests. It is also unsure how receptive the 11 nations will be in what is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, to seeing the Americans knocking on their door to get back in. Although hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the US remains the world’s biggest consumer market and trade destination, so it is attractive. But the other signatories are liable to ask a price.
Biden campaigned on “reshoring” US manufacturing and supply chains and a tough attitude toward China on trade enforcement. It is a valid argument. Many economists and political analysts have pointed out that Trump struck a nerve by threatening to reverse the flight of manufacturing overseas and the loss of US jobs, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, even if the mighty tech engines of Silicon Valley and Seattle created astonishing wealth for tech participants.
There is also legitimate concern over China’s coercing multinationals into giving up trade secrets and theft of intellectual property, both of which the Trump administration made an issue, and those concerns should remain and the US should seek coordinated assistance from other nations that have fallen victim, including the Germans and other members of the eurozone.
But every president except Trump going back to Harry Truman, and especially since China began its rise in the 1980s, has campaigned on a tough attitude toward China and ended up increasing trade entanglements between the two.
The tariffs Trump put in place may stay there for a bit, benefiting countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and others that have prospered from Trump’s attacks on China, according to Tao Wang, economist for UBS, but the temperature is likely to cool and the Biden administration will likely look the other way if multinationals start to rebuild relationships with suppliers in China. It is a country after all with far more sophisticated technology and support mechanisms than some of the countries to which multinationals have migrated.
But tensions between the US and China are unlikely to disappear, nor should they. China’s bullying of the littoral nations in the South China Sea, its genocidal treatment of the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities and its Anschluss against Hong Kong need to be resisted. It would be nice to see the US use the kind of steady diplomacy practiced by the George H.W. Bush administration in building global coalitions to let China know it can’t continue to bully the world. Susan B. Rice, the frontrunner to become Secretary of State, while though abrasive, is expected to be much more skillful than either of her predecessors.
The US military remains fairly well positioned, with the Trump administration having paid particular attention to modernizing the fleet and pushing back against China. There are more than 370,000 US troops and civilian contractors in the region, at least 200 submarines and ships including state-of-the art littoral Independence-class combat ships and some 2,000 aircraft of various capabilities.
As tensions have increased over China’s controversial ‘nine-dash line” and China’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan, the US has pushed back sharply, which, no matter how you feel about Trump, has been laudatory. Taiwan remarkably remains perhaps the most viable democracy in Asia and is deserving of support although such support has to be managed skillfully to avoid the possibility of outright war. This is where security and diplomatic arrangements like the Quad – Australia, India, Japan and the US become important.
The US has to rebuild its relations with South Korea and Japan, which foundered over US demands for huge rental increases to keep US bases on their soil – and keep the two from each other’s throats over 70-year-old World War II atrocities, which festered without US attention to them. South Korea went so far as to consider security arrangements with China as relations deteriorated with the US.