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What would the US’ Asia policy look like under a Joe Biden administration?

The 2020 United States presidential election effectively kicked off this month, when Bernie Sanders acknowledged that he could not win the Democratic primary race, setting up a context between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, who was the only other remaining Democratic hopeful. Though the outcome of the upcoming polls is far from certain, it is worth asking what a US Asia policy would look like in a Biden administration.

US presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks during a Democratic presidential debate in Washington on March 15, 2020. He has framed his Asia views as part of a restorationist foreign policy platform, writes the author.

US presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks during a Democratic presidential debate in Washington on March 15, 2020. He has framed his Asia views as part of a restorationist foreign policy platform, writes the author.

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The 2020 United States presidential general election effectively kicked off this month, when Bernie Sanders acknowledged that he could not win the Democratic primary race, setting up a contest between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, who was the only other remaining Democratic hopeful.

Though the outcome of the upcoming polls is far from certain, it is worth asking what a US Asia policy would look like in a Biden administration.

Mr Biden is no stranger to US foreign policy in general and Asia in particular. He is a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a participant in some of the key inflection points in US’ Asia policy over the decades, be it US-China normalisation in the 1970s or the pivot or rebalance as vice-president during the administration of Barack Obama.

Yet the context for US-Asia policy has changed since Mr Biden departed the White House in 2017.

While the Trump administration has made Asia a key focus of US engagement under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, Mr Trump has also challenged aspects of that engagement by questioning free trade and alliances and pursuing a more competitive course with China.

Meanwhile, in the region, while allies and partners such as Australia, India, and Japan may share some US concerns — including on China — Mr Trump’s America First policies have heightened existing concerns about American leadership amid Beijing’s growing capabilities and assertiveness. This sense has only deepened amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

Thus far, Mr Biden has framed his Asia views as part of a restorationist foreign policy platform.

In a recent article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, for instance, he outlined a vision anchored on the middle class and US democracy and leadership that would boost US competitiveness relative to China, manage the North Korea challenge in concert with allies, and advance a free but fair trade policy.

To be sure, some of these contrasts belie the fact that there would be elements of continuity in Asia policy in a Biden administration, if he were elected.

Strategically, while the administration’s approach may change in name, it is likely to continue to pursue an Asia-first foreign policy with an Indo-Pacific orientation due to the region’s continued heft and America’s rising stakes there.

In defence, while we would see adjustments made in realms such as budgeting and alignment, there would be consistency in general areas of focus in US security engagements, including maritime security and terrorism.                                                 

Some continuity would also be seen with respect to US-China relations, since the hardening of China policy under Mr Trump reflects a growing consensus in Washington. Ties are likely to remain contentious, even though a Biden administration may offer a defter balancing of competition and collaboration and advance cooperation in areas of common interest such as climate change.

Yet we would also be likely to see significant change in some areas.

With the restoration of a more conventional US administration, Washington would revert back to a more traditional level of commitment to multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

This would be welcome in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), where Mr Trump’s poor attendance record at Asean-related meetings has undermined bureaucratic inroads being made.

Democracy and human rights would be elevated to a greater level.

Indeed, the Biden campaign platform already proposes measures such as the convening of a democracies summit and advancing policy in areas like the rise of digital authoritarianism, which refers to the way governments may seek to control their populations through digital technology. 

But while there would be greater alignment with Asian allies such as South Korea, countries with rights issues in South and Southeast Asia, such as India or the Philippines, could find themselves under scrutiny by the US.

Economics and trade would be another area of some change.

While the state of the US economy will continue to make reentry into trade pacts like the former Trans-Pacific Partnership difficult, Mr Biden’s administration would likely tone down Mr Trump’s protectionism and be creative about leveraging US economic statecraft internationally.

Mr Biden suggested as much in his Foreign Affairs piece. 

To be sure, how exactly Mr Biden’s Asia approach coheres will become clearer as we get closer to November. Thus far, the global coronavirus pandemic has dominated the headlines and relegated foreign policy to the fringes.

We have only seen glimpses of Asia policy, whether it be Mr Biden’s criticism of Mr Trump’s handling of North Korea or the barb-trading between the two men on China.

Beyond the election, personnel is policy, and the exact contours of Mr Biden’s Asia approach would begin to take shape once we see the mix of people who would staff a Biden administration.

While both the Obama and Trump administrations have articulated Asia-first foreign policies, major policy advances have benefited from the stewardship of key Asia hands such as former State Department official Kurt Campbell and former defence official Randy Schriver.

The shape of Mr Biden’s Asia policy will also be dependent on what else Washington has to deal with at home and abroad as the administration staffs up, whether it be Covid-19 or reshaping the US’ Middle East presence.

The US is a global superpower in need of domestic repair and reforms, and the bandwidth that a Biden administration would have to advance innovation in areas such as diplomacy, trade, and alliances would be dependent on what else it has on its plate.

Furthermore, amid the focus on a Biden administration’s outlook, it is worth remembering that US Asia policy is not just about what Washington does, but how the region fares.

The evolution of alignments among major powers, the trajectory of flashpoints such as North Korea, and the arrival and departure of individual leaders, will be among the variables that factor into this mix.

As the Biden-Trump contest takes shape in the coming months, including with the party conventions now set for August, we will see occasions where Asian affairs will be in the spotlight, with a case in point being their ongoing exchanges on China.

As we hear this rhetoric, it will be important to keep in mind the bigger picture with respect to US’ Asia policy moving forward, and the region which either Mr Trump or Mr Biden will have to continue to work with in the coming years.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Prashanth Parameswaran is a fellow at the Wilson Center, where he produces research and analysis on Southeast Asian political and security issues, Asian defence developments, and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed here are his own.

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Joe Biden USA China Donald Trump US election

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