Biden’s 'Mission Impossible' in the Philippines

Amid the rise of China, the US will be dealing with a less friendly Manila and a trio of increasingly assertive middle powers

US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (R) shakes hands with seven-year-old Gao Shan, the boy Biden proclaimed as the future president of China, during a visit to the village of Yanzikou, north of Beijing, 10 August 2001.  After meeting Chinese leaders for two days, Biden and his delegation left Beijing to look at life in the countryside, where 70 percent of China's population lives.    AFP PHOTO/POOL (Photo by GREG BAKER / POOL / AFP)
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"America is back," US President-elect Joe Biden declared not long after securing a hard-fought victory in one of the country's most contentious elections yet. "America's going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder." The former vice president was essentially repudiating President Donald Trump's "America First" cocktail of isolationism, protectionism and unilateralism that many pundits have characterised as "America Alone".

True to his words, America's incoming president has swiftly assembled a putative cabinet filled with scions of liberal internationalism, including leading foreign policy minds and military officers during the Obama administration. But Mr Biden's plans to "reassert" American global leadership will face significant hurdles, not only at home but also abroad, especially in Asia – the new geopolitical centre of gravity.

Far from re-establishing the US as the world’s undisputed superpower, Mr Biden’s presidency is likely to crystalise the emergence of a truly "post-American world", as prickly allies, independent-minded “middle powers” and above all, a resurgent China collectively reshape the 21st-century global order.

One of the most dramatic expressions of this seismic shift in America’s place in the world is the outright defection of a century-old ally, the Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte.

FILE PHOTO: President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after his arrival, from a visit in Israel and Jordan at Davao International airport in Davao City in southern Philippines, September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr. - RC15F3EF3400/File Photo
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has often expressed support for China, even though his country has a long-standing treaty with the US. Reuters

Mr Trump lost the presidential election, but authoritarian populism is very much alive across Asia. According to the latest surveys, Mr Duterte is arguably the world’s most popular head of state with a whopping 91 per cent approval rating.

Not only has the Filipino populist upended the country’s fragile democratic institutions, but he has also revolutionised the country’s foreign policy. Under his watch, Manila has gone from a major “non-Nato ally” in Asia to one of the West’s most pugnacious critics as well as China’s most colourful cheerleader.

Here is a democratically elected strongman, who has lashed out at American leaders, threatened to expel all European Union envoys and end the Philippines’ military alliance with the West. Mr Trump’s open embrace of fellow right-wing populists such as Mr Duterte has only encouraged him further.

Last year, Mr Duterte unilaterally terminated a key defence agreement with the US, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the basis for hundreds of annual joint exercises, as well as the entry of tens of thousands of American troops on Philippine soil. The pretext? The US Congress’ imposition of human rights-related sanctions on Mr Duterte’s associates and top police officers for their involvement in a scorched-earth drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives.

In June, the Filipino President temporarily reinstated the defence agreement, but will certainly leverage the VFA as part of a broader quid pro quo with the incoming Biden administration, including assurances against new sanctions. To make matters more complicated, Mr Duterte is now demanding millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses in exchange for full restoration of the defence pact.

His brazen defiance and demands of Washington is not an isolated case. Instead, it is a palpable reflection of rising self-confidence among post-colonial leaders in Asia. From Malaysia to Indonesia and Cambodia, a growing number of regional leaders have openly defied America, questioned its "democracy promotion" initiatives, and found a willing patron in China.

Undoubtedly, the Asian powerhouse represents the most formidable challenge to Mr Biden's hope of restoring American leadership, especially on the continent. After centuries of being dormant, China has once again become the centre of trans-Asian trade, investments and increasingly geopolitics.

Thanks to its cutting-edge mercantilism and efficient developmental bureaucracy, China has managed to become the biggest winner of economic globalisation in the past half-century. In 1990, China’s nominal Gross Domestic Product was equivalent to only 6 per cent of that of the US. By 2016, when Mr Trump took over, its GDP was roughly three-fifths of that of the world's largest economy.

China's decisive management of the Covid-19 crisis means that it will be the only major economy to post positive GDP growth this year, placing it on the path to becoming the world's largest economy within less than a decade.

Crucially, Beijing has wasted no chance in translating its newfound prosperity into geopolitical influence (think of the Belt and Road Initiative), growing high-tech self-sufficiency (think of "Made in China 2025"), and a formidable military, including the development of indigenous aircraft carriers and the world's largest naval force.

With rising power comes deepening self-assurance. In response to growing bipartisan hostility in Washington and other major western capitals, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on the country’s military to focus on “preparing for war” while accelerating the People’s Liberation Army’s modernisation programme.

For better or worse, China has become an indispensable stakeholder in global politics, especially in Asia. It has simply become too big to contain, and too powerful to ignore.

Despite his increasingly hawkish stance on China, Mr Biden will come under immense pressure to dial down the ongoing trade war, de-escalate military tensions, and find common ground with Beijing on major global concerns such as climate change, international public health, nuclear non-proliferation and free trade.

Otherwise, as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger warned: “the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to the First World War". Instead of continuing Mr Trump’s confrontational policy on China, Mr Biden will most certainly adopt a more differentiated and compartmentalised approach.

Meanwhile, the US will have to contend with another major geopolitical shift. Marooned by the recent turbulent years of Trumpian unilateralism, increasingly self-assertive "middle powers" such as India, Japan, and Australia have stepped up to the plate, demonstrating their unwillingness to be defined by the whims of superpowers.

As for China, it is at loggerheads with a number of neighbouring powers, including territorial disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam, not to mention diplomatic spats with farther away Australia. In response, regional powers across the Indo-Pacific are carving out their own spheres of influence, building their own networks of co-operation, and ramping up their own defence capabilities. In 21st-century Asia, geopolitical power has become more "horizontal", multifarious, multi-centered and dynamic.

The broader implications for American leadership and the contours of global order are enormous. What we are witnessing is an increasingly flat order rather than a hierarchical one, where middle and smaller powers collectively shape their own strategic destinies, thus ensuring that the future of Asia will depend neither on America nor China. As Mr Biden himself conceded: "We face a totally different world."

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, having taught political science at Ateneo De Manila University and De La Salle University, Philippines