In Biden, Asian nations fear a return to Obama-era sanctimony

There is hope for change, but not too much change

FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo
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As the results of the US presidential election became clear; governments and policymakers all over the world have been asking themselves the same question: what will a Joe Biden administration mean for us? Nowhere, perhaps, has this query been raised more urgently than in Asia. This is particularly the case in the region Americans now like to refer to as the Indo-Pacific, which the Biden team is said to regard as being “the place of the future” and is also the crucible of great power rivalry between China and the US.

The President-elect has assembled a foreign policy and national security advisory group of over 2,000 people, among whom are many veterans of the Obama-Biden administrations. This is supposed to be reassuring. To many in East Asia, however, it is having precisely the opposite effect. Mr Obama may be associated with the “pivot to Asia”, but this shift is now widely regarded as having been stronger on presentation than on substance. Regional states were left wondering just how real US commitment was, amid doubts that Mr Obama and his officials truly understood Beijing’s ambitions or how to deal with them.

Vice President Joe Biden, right, talks to President Barack Obama at their election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Then Vice President Joe Biden talks to President Barack Obama at their election night party in 2012. AP

This view was expressed most trenchantly by the former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan who, in a widely noticed op-ed last week, wrote that “Obama had little stomach for exercising power. There was even reason to wonder whether his administration, particularly in its second term, really understood international relations.” Mr Kausikan accused Mr Obama of having been outplayed by President Xi Jinping, not least over the militarisation of the South China Sea. President Donald Trump, by contrast, “understood power, albeit instinctively.”

Particular alarm has been aroused over the suggestion that Mr Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice could be named Mr Biden’s Secretary of State. She, Mr Kausikan tweeted a few months ago, “would be a disaster. She has very little interest in Asia, no stomach for competition, and thinks of foreign policy as humanitarian intervention.” Mr Kausikan may be outspoken, but he echoes thoughts that plenty prefer not to make public. Perishingly few want Mr Biden’s White House to be an “Obama, Part 2”.

Almost as unpopular is the idea that the new administration would “put values and democracy back at the centre of US foreign policy”, as a key Biden foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, has said it would. Quite apart from the regional dislike of Uncle Sam’s finger-wagging, after this election the US has never looked in a worse state to lecture others about democracy. The next White House should repair the faults in its own system before presuming to tell Asian states how they should reform themselves.

epa08797604 A delivery man passes by a board inviting people to a watch party for the US election results hosted by Democrats Abroad in a restaurant in Shanghai, China, 04 November 2020. Republican candidate and incumbent Donald J. Trump and Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden are jostling for Electoral College votes need to secure the presidency. To win a candidate needs to acquire 270 Electoral College votes.  EPA/ALEX PLAVEVSKI
The US must engage with China in good faith, which means conceding that to whatever extent a “rules based international order” exists, it was not formed with Chinese input. EPA

Mr Biden’s pick as Secretary of State will be crucial for how his administration is received in the region, as will the wider State and National Security Council (NSC) teams. If the President-elect is serious about reaching across the aisle, he might do well to persuade Mr Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser, Matt Pottinger, to take a role. Formerly Senior Director for East Asia on the NSC, Mr Pottinger is far too hawkish on China for my tastes, but he is witty, candid and a fluent Mandarin speaker who is too talented not to be a voice in the room.

Above all, what Mr Biden needs to do is combine the good intentions of the Obama administration with the firmness Mr Trump sometimes displayed – without the latter’s tendency to change policy through a midnight tweet, of course. Allies, friends and neutral parties would all be better served by more clarity over America’s purpose. The US needs to be precise about what its interests are, and firm that it will act to defend them – just as any sensible government would – rather than waffling on about the importance of universal values that are far from universal in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, it must engage with China in good faith, which means conceding that to whatever extent a “rules based international order” exists, it was not formed with Chinese input, and Beijing’s concerns and proposals are overdue in being heard.

What Mr Biden needs to do is combine the good intentions of the Obama administration with the firmness Mr Trump sometimes displayed

The Biden administration should also be brutally realistic about China. It must not give the impression, as some believe Secretary Pompeo has, that the US is intent on regime change. Mr Biden should heed the advice of UK-based academic Kerry Brown “to purge our language, outside China, of the constant desire to urge it to become like us, and to be constantly wanting to preach and urge it to reform and change in ways that will, we assume, make it more like us”. Mr Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London, formerly thought that was what Western countries should do. Now, he wrote this August, “the best we can hope from China is simply to be stable... Knowledge, humility, and honesty will be the things that help the outside world deal with the historic challenge of China’s rise.”

Mr Biden and his officials should make sure they show up at the various regional summits, and that they fill diplomatic posts in the region promptly – two strikes against the current administration. But they should also take full advantage of their ability to press the “reset” button. Everyone expects them to do so in any case, but some have pointed out that there were plusses to President Trump’s tendency to disruption. Some policy saws needed to be junked. Past approaches towards North Korea had not worked; even if Mr Trump’s didn’t in the end either, it showed that a different form of dialogue was possible.

There are great opportunities for the next administration – for both de-escalation and greater co-operation in the Indo-Pacific. Cold-eyed analysis, rather than the windy rhetoric of “hope”, is what will be required, however. In foreign policy terms, “Back to the future” is a film few in the Indo-Pacific want to see again.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National