What does a Biden win mean for Asia?

John West
Joe Biden is likely to reverse America’s isolationist approach to global relations and that should be good news for Asia, but there will be domestic challenges to deal with first
Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

Many Asian countries heaved a giant sigh of relief at the news of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections. There is a great desire for the US to act as an effective counter-balance to China’s assertive behaviour. With the rise of China, we are now in a multipolar world, and effective balance-of-power politics are necessary to ensure regional stability and security.

Mr Biden has been making all the right noises regarding constructive international leadership and many Asian leaders have openly welcomed the election result. But he has many domestic issues to worry about that will hold him back on the international stage. 

America’s Asia

After bringing an end to World War II, the US masterminded the post-war renaissance of Asia by providing financial assistance to rebuild war-torn economies, offering security alliances and partnerships to some countries, and promoting democracy. The post-war liberal international order and US’ open markets underpinned the region’s export-driven development. When China began opening its economy from 1978, the US was also there to welcome Chinese exports, students, migrants and more recently, Chinese investors. 

In the mind of Donald Trump and many of his supporters, Asian countries have benefitted greatly from the US without offering anything in return. This is wrong. In reality, the US has gained much from its role as Asia’s hegemon. It brought peace to a region with which it shares the Pacific Ocean. It has transformed Asia into a very important partner for US business. And it could leverage regional alliances and partnerships to its advantage.

America had long been a shining light on a hill, a source of inspiration for people in Asia and the world over. But it will likely take a long time for the US to regain this position. Indeed, the swings in policy from one US administration to another mean that it is an unreliable world leader.

An Asian agenda for Biden

The election of Mr Biden provides the US with an opportunity to re-establish itself as an effective Asian regional power – although following the emergence of modern China, the US must learn to compete and coexist with it.

There is much the US could do in Asia that would be beneficial to both. Above all, the Biden administration must develop a functional relationship with China, based on both competition and cooperation. President Trump quite rightly tackled China’s mercantilist trade practices, but his Phase One trade agreement achieved nothing, other than unrealistic promises by China to make purchases of US products. 

Rather than going it alone, Mr Biden should join forces with Europe and Japan to force China to open its market and respect intellectual property rights. At the same time, Mr Biden needs to work closely with China on tackling climate change and managing North Korea. This juggling act of competition and cooperation will require deft and sophisticated diplomacy, and above all great patience, something which has been lacking in US policy under the Trump administration.

All the signs are that Mr Biden believes that allies and multilateral cooperation are in America’s interest. This is very good news! He should reaffirm America’s commitment to key allies, notably Japan, South Korea and Australia. He should also consider expanding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia, to other Asian democracies like South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and possibly also Vietnam.

He has indicated a desire to rejoin the Paris climate change agreement, the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Commission, and the Iran nuclear agreement.  But he will also need to make a greater effort than his predecessor with Asia’s many international meetings like the East Asian Forum, Asian Regional Forum, and ASEAN dialogue partner meetings. Even if Mr Biden does not have the personal stamina to attend all these meetings, he should make ample use of his Vice President, Kamala Harris, who with her Indian ethnic origins and obvious personal charm, would be a great asset for America’s cooperation with Asia.

Trade should also be top of the agenda. China is the major trading partner for most other Asian countries, leaving them vulnerable to costly trade sanctions when they provoke China’s ire. While there is little the US can do to displace China’s position, rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) would be a very positive move which would expand the benefits of this deal.

Further, the TPP, which does not include China, goes beyond trade to set high standards for business including for state-owned enterprises, labour rights and intellectual property. US domestic politics may make it difficult, especially in the short-term, to rejoin the TPP, but the US has much to gain, notably for its exports to other TPP countries and for establishing a modern and competitive playing field for doing business in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, if China could be convinced to join the TPP, it could resolve many of the concerns of its mercantilist trade practices.   

China has been extending its influence over many Asian and other economies by financing infrastructure, notably by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while the US has been largely inactive on this front. China’s infrastructure assistance has been welcomed for several reasons: most Asian countries still have large infrastructure deficits; some Asian leaders have reportedly received bribes; and infrastructure can provide the basis for a broader trade and investment relationship. But the BRI has also led to many problems – notably regarding debt terms, often referred to as “debt-trap diplomacy”. 

As a counter to the BRI, the US, Japan and Australia have developed the Blue Dot Network (BDN), a multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to promote high quality infrastructure development projects. But the BDN has only very modest ambitions, and should be built up.

The election of Mr Biden provides the US with an opportunity to re-establish itself as an effective Asian regional power – although following the emergence of modern China, the US must learn to compete and coexist with it.

American soft power has taken a beating under the Trump administration. His “America First” mantra, disdain for allies and multilateralism, admiration for fellow authoritarian leaders, and disregard for science and expertise have played out badly. And the President’s incompetent governance was highlighted by his response to COVID-19, which has seen the US top the world for cases and deaths. 

America had long been a shining light on a hill, a source of inspiration for people in Asia and the world over. But it will likely take a long time for the US to regain this position. Indeed, the swings in policy from one US administration to another mean that it is an unreliable world leader.

America’s intractable social fault lines

Mr Biden has talked of bringing Americans together, a necessary foundation for international leadership. And yet America’s fault lines are deep and longstanding, and there is little hope of them being quickly resolved. 

For example, the gap between rich and poor has been widening for decades in response to technological progress and globalisation, as has the spread of rust-belt areas, and Washington has shown little interest in helping America’s disenfranchised citizens. Racism and racial violence have been baked into American society since the country’s foundation. And the gulf in social values between conservatives and progressives seems more entrenched than ever.  

While Mr Biden may have won the presidency rather convincingly, he could be a weak president, with a reduced Democrat majority in the House of Representatives and likely facing a Republican majority in the Senate. And with the Supreme Court having a conservative majority, issues like abortion and Obamacare could become flashpoints. 

Even more worrying is that despite Mr Biden’s victory, Trumpism is still very much alive and well, with 71 million people having voted for him. Many of his supporters remain disenchanted with Washington elites and believe that the election was rigged. President Trump himself will still be in the White House for two months, a period during which he still has the full powers of the office and can still do much damage, like his refusal to concede defeat. Even when he leaves office, he will likely be on the sidelines stoking up discontent and unrest among his followers.

The immediate future

More urgently, Mr Biden must tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently out of control. The US economy and politics, and its international leadership, cannot get back to normal until the pandemic is under control.

As Mr Biden takes over the US presidency, it would be easy to feel pessimistic about the prospects for US international leadership and even its desire to lead. But for all the hype surrounding its decline, the US remains the world’s economic superpower.

And most importantly, in an Asian context, Mr Biden’s win is a welcome development as it is likely to mark a return to greater, structured US engagement with the region.

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Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).

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