Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election is likely to reverse the course of Trump and his “America First” platform over the past four years, which has largely opposed multilateralism, downplayed alliances, led the fight to China and abandoned America’s role internationally Leadership since the end of World War II. “Working with other nations that share our values and goals doesn’t make the United States a sucker,” Biden argued in a 2020 essay for Foreign Affairs. “That makes us safer and more successful. We are strengthening our own strength, expanding our presence around the world, and increasing our impact while sharing global responsibility with willing partners ”(Biden, 2020).
America’s return to the international community under a Biden administration is likely to have a crucial impact on multilateral cooperation on a wide variety of global issues, from climate change to public health, trade, nuclear non-proliferation, human rights to a rules-based one international order. Patrick, 2020). But what might this expected return to multilateralism and international cooperation look like in the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s own interests and influences play a major role?
When America revisits international organizations and protocols for the first time, Biden will have his hands full restoring his country’s standing and credibility with institutions, allies, partners and friends alike. Almost any multilateral institution or global framework will do so – Trump’s alienated relationships with them were so extensive – but for example the World Health Organization and the international climate pact, from which Trump, among other things, has withdrawn the United States. For his part, Biden has vowed to rededicate his nation to these and other multilateral institutions and protocols.
The international response to Biden’s victory so far has been positive. The United Nations Secretary-General recently welcomed his organization’s partnership with the United States as an “essential pillar” of the world order (United Nations, 2020). However, Biden’s claim that his foreign policy agenda will “put America back at the top of the table” seems a little premature, even if US leadership has been sorely missed in these situations (Biden, 2020).
Biden will find much of the Asia-Pacific region accessible and welcoming to America, if only because regional fear of Trump’s tough stance on China has grown (Crabtree, 2020). For a region where impressions matter, Biden’s willingness to connect with his colleagues in the Asia-Pacific region will have an immediate impact, especially since Trump has skipped the region’s summits and important multilateral meetings in the past three years (Kuhn , 2020). According to a top advisor to Biden, Biden will emerge as US president and engage ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] on critical issues ”(Strangio, 2020). Since the beginning of the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” strategy, the region’s multilateral bodies such as the ASEAN regional forum have become arenas in which the histrionics between the US and China occasionally takes place over the South China Sea and little substance is achieved .
On the other hand, the ADMM-Plus has shown that militaries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Chinese and US armed forces, can successfully work together multilaterally in certain non-traditional security areas (Tan, 2020a). Whether Biden can work with partners from the Asia-Pacific region to rejuvenate and strengthen these multilateral agreements is an important question. Here one is reminded of former US officials like Hillary Clinton who, with some annoyance, insisted that Asia-Pacific institutions should not be just talk shops and “get results” (Tan, 2015: 121).
How Biden is working with China – with which he has vowed to “get tough” – will affect the quality and tenor of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region. Biden’s stance on the South China Sea is unlikely to differ from that of his predecessor. The Trump administration has conducted 20 or more Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, nine of which took place in 2019 alone. While the pace and extent of a Biden government’s involvement in FONOPs in these waters remains to be determined, its intensity is unlikely to decrease. In particular, Biden has avoided using the term “Indo-Pacific” in his public statements, presumably to distance himself from the openly anti-Chinese orientation of the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy (Tan, 2020b). His willingness to listen to his Asia Pacific counterparts could be compared to his approach to security in the region and on the sharp edges of the quad – the informal security forum made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the US – to that of an anti-anti-security forum was to mitigate. China Alliance (Quinn, 2020).
In addition, many believe that America has fallen behind China in terms of its comparative influence in the region, which is viewed by many as “ground zero” in the conflict between these two great powers (Becker, 2020). America is neither a participant in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the previous incarnation of which the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump, the US supported, nor a member of the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a massive trade deal between 15 countries and 2.2 billion people, nearly 30 percent of the world’s population, with combined GDP of around $ 26 trillion, or (based on 2019 data) nearly 28 percent of world trade (Tan, 2020c). While China is not part of the CPTPP, it is nonetheless the linchpin of the RCEP with an economy that dwarfs that of its RCEP counterparts.
Granted, America, despite its absence from these multilateral pacts, is no straggler. US $ 2 trillion is traded with the RCEP countries – the ASEAN region accounted for US $ 354 billion in 2019 alone. However, this pales in comparison to China’s trade with the ASEAN region, which was $ 644 billion in the same year (Tan, 2020c). Aside from isolated cases of debt traps caused by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asia-Pacific region is arguably not a passive recipient of Chinese generosity, but an active shaper of the pace and scope of the BRI (Jones and Hameiri, 2020 ). Wisely pursued, America’s economic involvement in the region could win back its friends and yield substantial dividends, even if Washington cannot compete with Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy.
America’s anticipated return to cooperative multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region will be a welcome antidote to Trump’s highly transactional and fragile brand of international diplomacy. However, their success will depend to a large extent on the quality of its relations with China, as well as on Washington’s ability to work with regional partners on their terms.
Becker, E. (2020) “Southeast Asia is ground zero in the new conflict between the USA and China – and Beijing wins.” Foreign policy, 29th August. Https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/29/southeast-asia-china-book/
Crabtree, J. (2020) “Biden has a serious credibility problem in Asia.” Foreign policy, September 10. Https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/10/trump-biden-asia-credibility-problem/
Biden, J. R., Jr. (2020) “Why America Must Lead Again.” Foreign Affairs, March April. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again
Jones, L. and S. Hameiri (2020) Debunking the Myth of “Debt Trap Diplomacy”: How Recipient Countries Shape China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Research report, August 19th. London: Chatham House.
Kuhn, A. (2020) “The allies in the Asia-Pacific region speak to Biden as the transition continues.” NPR, November 12th. Https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-2020-election-results/2020/11/12/934069756/asia-pacific-allies-speak-with-biden-as-transition- keeps moving forward
Patrick, S. M. (2020) “What a Biden victory would mean for the future of multilateralism.” World Politics Review, October 26th. Https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29165/what-a-biden-win-would-mean-for-the-future-of-multilateralism
Quinn, J. (2020) “An Asian NATO?” National review, October 7th. Https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/10/an-asian-nato/
Strangio, S. (2020) “What Would a Biden Administration Mean for Southeast Asia?” The diplomat, November 3rd. Https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/what-would-a-biden-administration-mean-for-southeast-asia/
Tan, S. S. (2015) Multilateral Asian Security Architecture: Non-ASEAN Actors. London: Routledge.
Tan, S. S. (2020a) “Is ASEAN finally getting multilateralism right? From ARF to ADMM +. ” Asian Studies Review 44 (1): 28-43.
Tan, S. S. (2020b) “Used for Hedging: Southeast Asia and America’s” Free and Open Indo-Pacific “Strategy.” international affairs 96 (1): 131-148.
Tan, S. S. (2020c) “What could ASEAN expect from Biden?” RSIS comments, CO20196, November 17. Https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/us-presidential-election-2020-what-might-asean-expect-from-biden/#.X7VaEy9h2Wg
United Nations (2020) “Guterres congratulates Biden and Harris and welcomes the partnership between the United Nations and the US as an” essential pillar “.” UN news, November 9th. Https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1077242
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