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Asia's Expectations for the Biden Administration
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From the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change to major power competition and alliance management, there will be no shortage of complex policy challenges awaiting President-elect Biden—especially in the Indo-Pacific. In this online-only event, Wilson Center experts assess what nations across the Indo-Pacific expect from the incoming administration.
“China believes its “period of strategic opportunity” has not ended and that it can make further gains under the Biden administration. China’s confidence is based on its recent success in pressing territorial claims, recovering from COVID, and getting its economy back on track. Beijing is not revisiting its fundamental ideas about the United States or China’s position in the world.”
“President-elect Biden has a tremendously experienced foreign affairs team coming in, but he has been clear that his primary goal will be national restoration and healing. He has said he won’t look at new free trade agreements until American workers are more competitive and infrastructure has been rebuilt. But raising worker competitiveness and putting infrastructure in place is the work of decades. National healing takes time, and we don’t have time because China is on the move.”
“As the US will be welcoming President-elect Biden to the White House, Japan actually will be welcoming a new leader too. [… Prime Minister Stuga] has big shoes to fill after Prime Minister Abe, who has been able to not only bring stability to the Japanese political scene but also has helped Japan have a greater presence on the global arena. Of course, the United States is by far the most important financial relationship that Japan has, and so it is critical for Suga to have good relations with Biden moving forward.”
“I want to address four uncertainties that the Japanese are particularly wary of, and the first one is how the objectives of the United States as a Pacific power will align with the interests of Japan. […] The second concern that Japan has for this upcoming administration is how the U.S. approach with China will change and how that might align with the interests of Japan. Japanese companies have been badly hurt by the ongoing US-China trade war under the Trump administration, but at the same time Japan wants a more hawkish approach to China—not just on the security front but also on the economic front. […] The third concern is whether the United States can work with Japan to partner on new initiatives. And Prime Minister Suga is seen to be very much carrying Abe’s legacy on foreign policy including enhancing Japan's defense capability and in reaching out to different Southeast Asian countries. […] My fourth point and my final point is Japan’s concern about the United States and its ability to recover from the COVID pandemic/economic shock as well as the social and the political divide. Asia has been rattled by the fact that the United States has not been able to keep the spread of COVID in check.”
“The challenge for Japan, like many other countries in the region, is whether it would be able to decouple economic interests from security concerns. For now, the answer would be very delicately, very gingerly. We saw Suga meet with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a couple of weeks ago and this was a friendly meeting where they talked about mutual interests. We saw that these countries have come under the one trade agreement, under RCEP so that has been a formidable achievement for both sides. But as we look forward, we have to ask if that kind of balancing act is even possible. This will be very challenging because they have territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands, and this comes at a time when there is a lot of shift in the balance of power in the region that Japan and China remain at loggerheads, not just in the systems that both are trying to promote but also in their standing in the region. Being able to reconcile their differences will certainly be a challenge and will certainly involve the United States as well.”
“In Afghanistan, Kabul is banking on a shift in U.S. policy. It wants the incoming administration to get tougher with the Taliban, which signed a troop withdrawal deal with the U.S. last February and it’s recently joined a fragile peace process with the Afghan state. Kabul is hoping that the incoming administration, which to this point has said very little about its Afghanistan strategy, will try to recalibrate the peace process so it doesn’t play out on the Taliban’s terms—as it has to the point where the Afghan government is stuck negotiating with the Taliban even as the Taliban intensifies violence and refuses to entertain thoughts of a ceasefire or even of reducing violence. The Afghan government hopes that the Biden administration will threaten to slow down or even halt the withdrawal of the remaining troops in Afghanistan until the Taliban shows that it is reducing violence, which would create an environment that is more conducive for negotiations—or so the thinking goes in Kabul.”
“I think in New Delhi, expectations are quite simple. New Delhi expects Biden to sustain the momentum in U.S.-India relations from the Trump era, and really for that matter from the Obama and Bush eras prior. New Delhi expects the incoming administration to be on the same page with India on the threat posed by China, an issue that has become a paramount concern for Indian security interests in the aftermath of a deadly China-India border clash this year that has plunged India-China relations to their lowest level in several decades. New Delhi hopes that the Biden administration will be an easier partner to address the trade tensions that have affected an otherwise stable, sound, bilateral relationship in recent years. New Delhi expects that the Biden administration will be willing to broaden cooperation into areas with great promise that nonetheless lapse during the Trump years, and one of these areas is certainly climate change.”
“I think that the South Asian capitals will be watching to see how the Biden administration goes about this, will it use Trump administration tools, like the Development Finance Corporation, the Blue Dot Network, and so on to pursue new infrastructure projects in South Asia as opposed to focusing only on East and Southeast Asia? Will it try to operationalize the longstanding but to this point wholly aspirational goal that had been trumpeted quite robustly during the Obama administration of building a “New Silk Road” initiative that provides greater linkages to South and Central Asia? I think the region will be thinking about these questions though it will likely keep expectations low at least initially given America’s rather modest recent historical track record as an enabler of infrastructure and other investments in broader South Asia.”
I do think that with every new U.S. president, there is a brief window of opportunity with the North Koreans when they first take office, and I’m thinking back to 2008 when I made a visit to North Korea [...]. Years later, I wrote here for the Wilson Quarterly that Donald Trump had a similar window of opportunity with Kim Jong at the start of his presidency in January 2017. But the North Koreans didn’t wait very long, it was just a matter of weeks before they launched provocations to get President Trump’s attention. I think the South Korean president, he’s invested immensely in engaging North Korea, he understands this pattern of behavior and he’s anxious for the Biden-Harris administration to send clear signals to Pyongyang on their openness, on continuing the diplomacy that was started under President Trump, and I think we’re seeing that reflected in the flurry of diplomacy happening right now between Seoul and Washington.”
“I do think we need to leave open the possibility that [Biden] may take a different tack but be mindful that the most effective way for the North Koreans to get on our radar is through provocation, because it does bring a sense of urgency and tension that draws attention to North Korea—and so they know that that works. The question is: will the Biden-Harris administration and will the Trump administration be able to utilize the time between now and January—really it is only going to be a couple of weeks in January or at most a couple of months before we see them turn to that tactic. I think there is still room to change that calculation, the fact that Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans have been somewhat quiet on the election, I think we should see that as them sitting back and really trying to figure out what’s happening and what their next move should be.”
"On US-China strategic competition: “What we’ve heard resoundingly from the South Koreans is ‘Listen, we can’t choose’ and I think that several of our speakers mentioned some of the retaliation that countries including Australia and South Korea have faced in pushing against China. They are economies that are dependent on not only economic relationships with China but I think, when it comes to South Korea, this current government—the Moon Jae-in administration—also needs China for its engagement policies on North Korea. They’re looking to navigate this competition and staying on side with both China and the United States."
“One thing I’ll be looking for in the Biden-Harris administration is a renewed push to really reinforce the importance of these relationships and to emphasize the shared and common interests between South Korea and Japan. And that includes North Korea, the threat from North Korea, and it includes the coronavirus. Really, we’ve seen, perhaps, withdrawal during the Trump years of that kind of trilateral engagement, but I’m hoping that we will start to see—with the restoration in the faith of the alliances—a kind of emphasis on the commonality and shared interest that they can focus on, mindful of the fact that the wartime labor issue is always going to be a tricky one, the history is always tricky.”
“The big question for Southeast Asia is where [Biden will land] on the spectrum between the Obama administration, where you saw extreme attention given to Southeast Asia—in fact, probably the most attention to Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam war—and the Trump administration, where you actually saw a big ebb in U.S. attention and influence in Southeast Asia relative to other aspects of Asia policy. And the question for Southeast Asia is where between those two extremes is the United States under a Biden administration going to end up [...]. I don’t think that there is an expectation that we’re going to see complete continuity with the Trump administration or a return to some sort of Obama 2.0. There’s a recognition that the United States is very consumed domestically with economic concerns and COVID. U.S.-China competition is here to stay."
“The U.S.-China competition is worrying in terms of its rhetoric, but I do think that in the Trump administration, we are seeing the United States think a little bit more about economic opportunities—the development of the Finance Corporation, and so on and so forth—and specific projects that the United States can work on with other countries. If there are more developments on that front, I think that would also be welcomed.”
“Perhaps under the Biden administration, there might be more predictability and stability, which I think is a little bit lacking for some of these Southeast Asian states, and also a bit of the removal from this pressure to choose on some of these key decisions—which they face both publicly and sometimes privately as well. I think that’s one aspect that is really important. I think the perception in Southeast Asia is that, if ten years ago we were talking about China being the economic partner in Southeast Asia and the U.S. being the security partner, we are way off of that. If you look at polling of elites in Southeast Asia, China is now seen as the dominant power both on security issues and on economic issues. That might not be accurate, but the perceptions are there nonetheless.”
Jean H. Lee
Journalist and former Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Associated Press
Director, Bower Group Asia and Senior Columnist, The Diplomat
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