Status Quo Ante with a Twist: Biden’s Probable East Asia Policy

The new president faces several difficult tasks from the outset with respect to US policy in East Asia.

December 21, 2020 • Commentary
This article appeared on Aspenia Online on December 21, 2020.

The sense of relief at President Donald Trump’s failure to win a second term is almost palpable throughout much of the international community. That attitude is especially strong among Washington’s long‐​time European allies, given Trump’s insistent demands for greater burden‐​sharing within NATO, his record of charting an ostentatiously independent course with respect to Middle East issues, and his generally contemptuous attitude toward allied governments. The expectation among foreign policy elites on both sides of the Atlantic is that a Biden administration will move rapidly to restore the kind of relationship that existed for decades before Trump’s presidency.

Among members of America’s foreign policy establishment, a similar expectation exists with respect to US policy in East Asia. However, the situation in that region is more complex and ambivalent. East Asian governments were noticeably less hostile to Trump’s policies than were European governments. Most officials, for example, welcomed the president’s efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, after a rocky first year in office.

Granted, the administration’s protectionist trade policies caused concern throughout the region. East Asian governments did not welcome Trump’s decision during his initial weeks in office to torpedo the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership (TPP), nor were they happy about his initiation of an outright trade war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Very little reluctance can be anticipated in response to the probable course correction that a Biden administration will make on both issues.

While governments throughout East Asia were generally negative toward Trump’s economic policies, they were more amenable about his firmer stance toward the PRC on an array of security issues. Taiwan especially welcomed the surge of U.S. support for the island’s de facto independence during the Trump years. The bilateral security relationship between Washington and Taipei deepened to the point that it came close to restoring the mutual defense alliance that existed before the United States shifted diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. The leaders and people of Taiwan already are showing signs of uneasiness about Trump’s electoral defeat. They worry that a Biden administration will be more accommodating—perhaps far too accommodating– to the PRC at the very time that Chinese leaders are pursuing an increasingly hardline, intimidating policy toward the island.

Other East Asian nations are not quite as concerned, but the embrace of a status quo ante approach by Biden would not necessarily be welcomed. Too much has changed in recent years to justify such a placid restoration. Beijing’s aggressive pursuit of its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, its equally aggressive stance with respect to Japan’s Senkaku islands, the dramatic growth of the PRC’s air and naval capabilities, and the imposition of a national security law that sharply reduced Hong Kong’s political autonomy, have all sent ripples of alarm throughout the region. China’s neighbors were not quite ready yet to sign‐​on to the Trump administration’s unsubtle diplomatic and military containment policy directed against the PRC, but they were moving in that direction. The new Biden administration will have to comprehend that conditions and attitudes on security issues involving China have changed significantly throughout East Asia since Biden left office as vice president in January 2017.

The most likely outcome is that his policies will be noticeably different from those of the current administration in some respects, while there will be surprising continuity in others. The greatest divergence will come in two areas: economic (especially trade) policy and relations with Washington’s traditional allies. Throughout his career, Joe Biden has shown little receptivity to trade protectionism. One can anticipate an emphatic return to the embrace of multilateral agreements to liberalize the global economic system that characterized the policies of all administrations, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, for decades before the onset of the Trump presidency.

Similarly, it is unlikely that Biden will continue the Trump policy of pressuring Japan and South Korea to pay more for the benefits that their bilateral alliances with the United States provide. Trump officials adopted firm stances to get both Tokyo and Seoul to pay more of the costs associated with the stationing of US troops as tripwire forces in their countries. With the lifting of such pressure, it will be safe for those governments to free‐​ride (or at least “cheap‐​ride”) once again regarding their alliances with the United States. In particular, there will be no more threats from Washington to reduce the size of the US troop presence if more financial support is not forthcoming.

On other matters, though, the new policy will constitute at most a partial return to the status quo ante. For example, greater diplomatic and military support for Taiwan had overwhelming, bipartisan support in Congress during the Trump years. So, too, did support for sanctions against top Chinese leaders following the crackdown on Hong Kong. Domestic hostility toward the PRC has soared over the past year or so because of Beijing’s actions on that issue and the communist regime’s lack of transparency regarding the Covid pandemic. Multiple public opinion surveys during 2020 confirmed that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, do not trust the PRC and favor a harder‐​line policy toward the communist regime. Biden can ignore that reality only at his political peril.

It also should be remembered that concerns about China’s power and intentions were rising even during the Obama‐​Biden administration. It was during that period that the much‐​discussed strategic “pivot” from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia began. Even when Biden becomes president, it is unlikely that the United States will decrease its “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, become even slightly receptive to Beijing’s territorial claims in that body of water or in the East China Sea, or abandon efforts to enlist India and Vietnam, as well as Washington’s traditional allies, in an implicit containment policy directed against China.

Perhaps the biggest question mark about the Biden administration’s East Asia policy is the probable stance regarding North Korea. Biden’s campaign rhetoric was not encouraging, and there certainly was no sign of innovative thinking. He merely regurgitated the standard US position that while he’s willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​un, Pyongyang must preemptively agree to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its nuclear weapons program. That demand is a non‐​starter, and the failure to abandon it was the main reason Trump’s once‐​promising rapprochement with Pyongyang faltered and then stalled. If Biden is unwilling to change course, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities simply will expand during his time in office, while calls among American hawks for preemptive military action mount. Both China and South Korea have continued to press the United States for greater flexibility in its policy toward North Korea, and the new administration will have to deal with that aspect as well. Regardless of his inclinations and preferences, Biden may have to change Washington’s North Korea policy in a fundamental way and move toward a normalization of relations.

The new president faces several difficult tasks from the outset with respect to US policy in East Asia. Fresh, creative thinking is badly needed. A return to a sterile— and increasingly irrelevant—status quo ante is neither desirable nor possible. How well President Biden understands that reality and crafts an appropriate response will have a major impact on his overall foreign policy legacy.

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