Author: Robert A Manning, Atlantic Council
It may be weeks before the US presidential election is fully settled, though the trajectory suggests a divided government of President Joe Biden and a Republican Senate. Regardless, expect more continuity than change in US policy toward the Asia Pacific, even with a marked shift in tone.
A Biden presidency would not erase the past four years, nor the deepening embedded populism in the United States, but would go a long way towards stopping the bleeding. Biden’s desire to heal the dysfunction will be constrained by a lack of control over the Senate.
A Donald Trump victory would likely have led to more tension within, if not fracturing of, US alliances. The Washington rumour mill suggests Trump contemplating withdrawing from NATO and reducing troops in both South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, Biden, with a veteran set of Asia hands in his administration, would embrace and seek to strengthen alliances, including with Japan, South Korea and Australia. That bodes well for deterrence.
Biden will promote US values, showcasing an alliance of democracies at a global summit of democracies in 2021 as a fulcrum to counter authoritarian trends and reshape a fraying world order. But some Asian countries may view it as pressure to choose against China.
Regarding US policy toward China, there is a bipartisan consensus that China is a ‘strategic competitor’. That would not change under Biden. But there are important differences about exactly what that means. The Trump administration has not defined the terms, bounds and limits of competition. Instead it has demonised China, pursued economic decoupling and crusaded against the Chinese communist party in speeches by top US officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued ‘if we don’t change the Communist party, it will change us’. One could be forgiven for concluding, as Beijing apparently has, that the intent is regime change.
In contrast, Biden would likely seek to halt the downward spiral of US–China relations, hoping to craft a framework for competitive coexistence. Two top Biden advisors, Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, wrote in Foreign Affairs that ‘the goal should be to establish favourable terms of coexistence with Beijing in four key competitive domains — military, economic, political and global governance’. This will require sustained and agile diplomacy, domestic support and a curbing of China’s assertive behaviour. Biden would almost certainly move away from the solely United States versus China bilateral approach and forge multilateral coalitions on shared concerns. Beijing seeks stability and is likely to offer a window to test Biden’s wherewithal to reset the US–China relationship.
On US–China economic and technological issues, expect a more prudent approach under Biden. Democrats are no less leery of free trade than Republicans, but a Biden administration would likely work closely with the European Union, Japan and Australia to press China on redressing shared trade grievances in the World Trade Organization, which Biden will work to reform. Such grievances include state subsidies, forced technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and rules and standards for emerging technology like artificial intelligence and 5G.
Expect a more measured and selective economic de-integration rather than half-baked decoupling. On technology, the United States has quietly forged a bipartisan move toward an industrial policy to better compete on semiconductors, 5G and other emerging technology that Biden is comfortable with. Beijing has selectively opened markets, principally finance and automotive vehicles, and Biden may seek to renew talks on a bilateral investment treaty.
A less volatile US–China relationship would impact the wider Indo-Pacific strategy. While the US military footprint expanded under Trump, effectively realising the pivot promised by Obama, it is unlikely to be diminished under Biden. But a strengthening of US alliances and partnerships in the region and expanding the informal network of security cooperation, including the Quad, may be likely.
Biden is likely to be less one-dimensional with regard to an Indo-Pacific strategy, putting more emphasis on regional diplomacy to address security issues and economic ties. Without robust economic underpinnings, an Indo-Pacific strategy may be hollow and unsustainable. With the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) set to expand under Tokyo’s leadership, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) moving toward becoming a reality (both absent the United States), the obvious question is whether Biden would re-join TPP. He has expressed an interest in rejoining, conditioned by a willingness to amend it to address US concerns. It may come down to how much political capital Biden would have to spend to gain approval in Congress.
The immediate security issue may be how a Biden administration would deal with the North Korea nuclear problem. He would inherit over 25 years of failed US diplomacy, and the reality of Pyongyang as a de facto nuclear weapons state. If past is prologue, Biden will be greeted by provocation, likely an SLBM or ICBM test, forcing a pseudo-crisis. Biden said he would be open to a summit — if working-level diplomacy created the conditions for a solution.
The question for the new administration will be whether to pursue an arms control deal. A nuclear cap and freeze, perhaps with a missile moratorium, is worth exploring. But previous deals foundered on transparency issues. A prerequisite for any nuclear freeze would be a credible full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear inventory, and full verification and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both are highly unlikely.
Biden inherits a lot of balls in the air with regard to the Asia Pacific. Between COVID-19 and recession, the region should bear in mind how preoccupied a new administration will be. Biden has long experience in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president with foreign policy. But it is, at best, a mixed record. What Asia can expect from the new US administration will depend on lessons learned and the degree US domestic politics allows it to be a rational actor.
Robert A Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative.