Biden Has a Serious Credibility Problem in Asia
U.S. allies have grown comfortable with Trump and his tough approach to China—and are anxious about a Biden victory.
Bilahari Kausikan, a former high-ranking Singaporean diplomat, is known to be outspoken. But his recent comments about Susan Rice, a U.S. national security advisor during the Obama administration, were even blunter than usual. “Rice would be a disaster,” he wrote on Facebook in August, when Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was reportedly considering Rice as a running mate. Kausikan described Rice—a possible candidate for secretary of state or defense in a Biden adminstration—as weak-willed on Beijing: “She was amongst those who thought the United States should deemphasise competition to get China’s cooperation on climate change, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of international relations.” His prediction in case of a Biden victory: “We will look back on Trump with nostalgia.”
If Kausikan’s sharp views have often made him an intellectual outlier in Asia, this case is different. To a degree that will surprise many in Washington, the United States’ friends in the region are quietly anxious about a Biden victory, and that counts even more for vital partners such as Japan and India. In the United States, Trump’s critics on both the left and right find him offensive and despair of his politics—and assume that any right-minded foreigner would, too. That may be the case in much of Europe, but not so in much of Asia: Officials in Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore, and other capitals have grown relatively comfortable with Trump and his tough approach on China. The prospect of a Biden presidency, by contrast, brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing. Whether or not that memory is correct is beside the point. Biden has an Asian credibility problem—and one that may prove tricky to solve.
In his speech at the Democratic convention, Biden described four priorities for his administration, including tackling COVID-19 and promoting racial justice. Managing China, a vital concern among Asian foreign policy elites, did not make the list. This kind of omission gets noticed in Tokyo, for instance, where Japan’s views on Trump were nicely encapsulated in an April article in the American Interest. The essay, “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy”, was written by an anonymous Japanese foreign ministry official and was scathing about an Obama-era China policy, whose “priority mission was always to engage China,” not compete with it. Trump’s policies were imperfect, the author argued, but his more robust approach to Beijing was welcome. “Do we want, if possible, to go back to the world before Trump?” the Japanese official asked. “For many decision-makers in Tokyo, the answer is probably no, because having a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy [under Trump] is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy [under Obama].”
To be fair, the anonymous article represents just one strain of thinking in Tokyo. But its publication almost certainly required formal foreign ministry approval, which suggests that it reflects the views of many senior officials. And it chimes with what I heard on my own most recent visit to Japan in late 2019, during which senior officials and foreign affairs analysts seemed remarkably sanguine about what another Trump term would mean. Biden’s election, by contrast, would risk the return of an approach many characterized as lacking the political will to manage and contain Chinese power.
A similar line of thinking lurks beneath the surface in New Delhi. Speaking last year, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s cerebral External Affairs Minister, pushed back against those who thought Trump had damaged ties with India. “What I have seen with Trump in the last two or three years was not at all the traditional American system,” he said. “You actually got big bold decisive steps in a range of areas.” As it grapples with rapidly deteriorating Sino-Indian ties, New Delhi is increasingly likely to value Trump’s chaotic but forceful anti-Chinese policies. At the very least, Biden’s arrival could complicate India’s strategic position, as foreign affairs commentator Raja Mohan argued recently when he predicted that Biden would be less confrontational with China while ending Trump’s lenient approach to Russia. “New strains in the US-Russia relations and a Sino-US rapprochement under Biden will certainly complicate India’s great power relations,” he wrote.
Similar worries are found in Taiwan, where foreign affairs officials are understandably sensitive to changes in U.S. China policy, and where the recent visit of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar underlined deepening ties with Washington. “Taiwan has benefited during Trump’s first term,” said Chieh-Ting Yeh, vice chairman of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based policy group. He said many in Taiwan would back “the current course over untested campaign promises.”
Biden’s campaign would disagree with those in Asia who seem relaxed about Trump’s return, and in many ways they would be right to do so. A second Trump administration is likely to cause considerable damage to the region, from his dismissive and transactional approach to existing U.S. alliances to the small but rising risk of a destabilizing military conflict with China itself. It is also true that doubts about Biden are far from universal. Many in the region would welcome a less pugnacious period of U.S. diplomacy, and hope for a new period of accommodation. “The two powers must work out a modus vivendi that will be competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison cooperation in others,” as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote recently—a prospect more likely under Biden than Trump.
What’s more, Biden has by now articulated a far tougher China policy than Obama ever did. He called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug” in one Democratic presidential debate earlier this year. In another, he painted China as “an authoritarian dictatorship.” Like most U.S. political leaders, he has long given up on the idea that China can be reformed, arguing instead that the United States must out-compete its Asian rival. His campaign has sent more subtle signals to Asian audiences too, not least by reaching out to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hinting that Biden would make a point of attending regional meetings that Trump so often skipped. “ASEAN is essential to tackling major challenges like climate change and global health,” Anthony Blinken, one of Biden’s senior advisors, recently wrote on Twitter. “President Biden will show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues.”
Yet even as Biden and his team push this more hawkish China tone, they face dilemmas. The first involves human rights. Biden has made this a centerpiece of a tougher approach to Beijing, often highlighting the plight of millions of ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. “I’ll put values back at the center of American foreign policy,” he said in a toughly worded statement this month that also focused on Tibet. This might appeal to U.S. progressives, but in Asia it comes with less fortunate Obama-era overtones of Washington lecturing its friends and pushing for democratic reforms.
Then there is a second problem of conflicting priorities, most obviously over climate change. “The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote recently. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change.” Given his alarming lack of interest in climate issues, this tension never troubled Trump. Biden cannot wish it away, and is under immense pressure to make progress from within his own party. Any hope of doing so, however, requires engagement with China as the world’s largest carbon emitter. For critics like Kausikan, it is precisely this rebalancing of issues that suggests Biden could return to what they view as Obama’s mushy mix of priorities.
Ultimately, Asian nations will adapt to whichever candidate ends up in the White House. Were Biden to prevail, he may be able to assuage his doubters quickly, leaving little nostalgia for Trump’s era of unpredictability. For now, however, Asia’s doubts about him are real. Biden’s true priority is to win over American voters. But given that he has put working with U.S. partners in Asia at the heart of any future foreign policy, a little more reassurance would not go amiss.
James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree