Election 2020

Asia’s Realists Shouldn’t Fear a Biden Presidency

They may admire Trump’s pugilism toward China, but the former vice president may have more to offer.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
Photos of the front pages of Japanese newspapers in Tokyo on Nov. 5.
Photos of the front pages of Japanese newspapers in Tokyo on Nov. 5. Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

As votes continue to be counted, a narrow victory for U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden looks increasingly likely. That outcome would likely be broadly welcomed around Asia—and all the more so the longer leaders in the region let the result settle in.

Many Asian strategists have had their doubts about Biden, especially in those countries, including Japan and India, that are most anxious about the rise of China. In many ways, Asia’s archrealists there had come to admire Trump’s pugilism. Seen from their perspective, a Biden presidency risks a return to mushy, softer tactics toward China. “Trump understood power, albeit instinctively,” as the Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote in an Election Day essay that was typically critical of former President Barack Obama’s record in the region. After the Obama presidency, Kausikan argued, Trump “did much to restore the credibility of American power.”

But the more Asia’s leaders look, the more they will find much to recommend a Biden presidency. Instinctive multilateralists in capitals such as Canberra or Tokyo can look forward to a period in which the United States engages them constructively on a range of common concerns, from pandemic recovery to climate change. Those nations with formal alliances with the United States, such as South Korea, can expect more reliable friendship.

As votes continue to be counted, a narrow victory for U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden looks increasingly likely. That outcome would likely be broadly welcomed around Asia—and all the more so the longer leaders in the region let the result settle in.

Many Asian strategists have had their doubts about Biden, especially in those countries, including Japan and India, that are most anxious about the rise of China. In many ways, Asia’s archrealists there had come to admire Trump’s pugilism. Seen from their perspective, a Biden presidency risks a return to mushy, softer tactics toward China. “Trump understood power, albeit instinctively,” as the Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote in an Election Day essay that was typically critical of former President Barack Obama’s record in the region. After the Obama presidency, Kausikan argued, Trump “did much to restore the credibility of American power.”

But the more Asia’s leaders look, the more they will find much to recommend a Biden presidency. Instinctive multilateralists in capitals such as Canberra or Tokyo can look forward to a period in which the United States engages them constructively on a range of common concerns, from pandemic recovery to climate change. Those nations with formal alliances with the United States, such as South Korea, can expect more reliable friendship.

Meanwhile, leaders in Southeast Asia who have often felt neglected under Trump, in nations from Malaysia to Myanmar, can at least expect Biden to turn up to more of the many meetings that mark out the region’s diplomacy. And it would surely be reassuring that there would no longer be much risk of the United States suddenly striking some zany surprise deal with China that the region disliked, or indeed simply retreating into outright isolationism.

Even the region’s major powers—China and India—would surely see advantage in the return of a more stabilizing U.S. president, and especially one who would be largely distracted by tasks at home and thus less likely to have time or energy to spare on the other side of the world. After Trump, the United States will not be able to resume the dominant role it played in the region only four years ago, let alone a decade back. But that is hardly a problem when viewed from New Delhi, and especially from Beijing.

The United States is divided and will remain so. But Asia’s leadership is nothing if not pragmatic. If Biden wins, his victory will be far from overwhelming. But as the dust settles, it will become clear that it could offer a little bit of something for everyone.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire  Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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