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Biden’s presidency and US-China relations: Implications for Asia and Singapore

By Lee Jun Hui, Guest Writer


During the tumult of World War II, the English poet T.S. Eliot penned a series of four poems, which covered themes of religion and divinity. The subject matter of Eliot’s Four Quartets hinted at his subconscious desire for hope and comfort, given the wartime uncertainty and anxieties he was living through.


One of the poems, Little Gidding, contains the lines: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”


Re-reading these lines today, Eliot’s voice seems to have found its way across the Atlantic to the United States (US), which held its Presidential Inauguration on January 20. The inauguration marked the official beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency, and brought an end to four tumultuous years of Trump’s presidency.


From the perspective of Asia and Singapore, Biden’s presidency has a second meaning: The end of Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy in the region, and the beginning of a different Asia policy under Biden, marked by greater rationality, predictability, and reassurance. This essay will explore the changes and continuities in the US’s Asia policy, with a focus on China.


In his discussion of US-China tensions in a 2019 speech, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong alluded to a popular African proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass beneath them that suffers.” [1] US-China relations directly impact the prosperity of small and trade-reliant countries like Singapore, as seen through their trade war. [2] Thus, it is in our interest to understand the US’s upcoming foreign policy toward China, to better cope with what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called the most important bilateral relationship in the world. [3]


US-China relations under Biden


Firstly, at a basic level, Biden’s tone and conduct will be much more dignified, measured, and predictable as compared to Trump’s. [4] This can be attributed simply to the differing personalities and temperaments of both leaders. During Trump’s presidency, his “erratic” nature (a charge levelled by Beijing) showed in his public remarks, which had often stoked diplomatic tensions between the US and China. [5] In his typical provocative fashion, Trump told a Fox News interviewer in May last year that the US could “cut off the whole [economic] relationship” with China, in response to their diplomatic conflicts over the coronavirus outbreak. [6]


Furthermore, during Trump’s first 100 days in office, he made an alarming total of 492 misleading claims across different media platforms. [7] These included claims about China, some of which even contradicted each other. For instance, on separate occasions, Trump had both alleged and denied that China was manipulating its currency. [7]


In contrast, Biden is more rational and is unlikely to replicate Trump’s erratic and misleading behaviour. Furthermore, Biden’s senior White House appointees have been described as “rational and consistent” by political analysts in China, which suggests that his administration will restore some stability and predictability to US-China relations. [8]


In terms of continuity, however, it is likely that Biden’s administration will follow Trump’s tough foreign policy with regards to China or make it even more iron-fisted.


As early as Obama’s presidency, the US had acknowledged the need for both engagement and containment in its policy towards China. [9] This reflected their then-emerging view that China was a strategic threat, from economic to military spheres.


Trump’s administration had shared this assessment of the ‘China Threat’, but his China policy was tilted heavily towards containment, at the neglect of engagement. [10] The unprecedented trade war, which plagued the last two years of Trump’s presidency, is a clear legacy of his containment approach.


Departing from Trump’s focus on containing Chinese power and might, Biden will likely tilt the balance towards engagements with China. In an article written last March for Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden acknowledged the need for both containment and engagement, citing the latter’s value in areas like climate change and the denuclearisation of North Korea. [11] In the former case, Biden’s climate agenda is unlikely to succeed without Chinese cooperation, given that China is the world’s top carbon emitter. [12] This will incentivise Biden to increase his engagements with China, because only through engagement can the US establish the goodwill and trust needed for cooperation from China.


However, one key challenge will limit Biden’s plan to increase US engagements with China: How the US, including members of Biden’s administration, interprets China’s rise.


Historically, since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the US has been the world’s sole economic and military superpower. Perched at the top of the global pecking order for almost three decades, Americans are conditioned to view geopolitical events in terms of how they would affect their country’s number-one spot.


Many in the US now believe that this spot is threatened by a rising China, the world’s second largest economy which boasts a rapidly modernising military. Antony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, has also labelled China as the nation-state which poses the biggest challenge to the US. [13]


In the Asia-Pacific region, flashpoints already exist, from the Taiwan issue to China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. Given its rivalrous view of China, the US may interpret these conflicts as a challenge to its longstanding economic and military primacy in the Asia-Pacific. If such an interpretation gains traction among the members of Biden’s Cabinet, they are likely to adopt tough measures against China, to avert the uncertainty and losses that come with ceding the US’s pole position. In turn, these measures would strain US-China relations and limit the possibility of engagement.


Re-engagement of allies in the Asia-Pacific


Trump’s China strategy did not have a key role for the US’s allies and partners in Asia. His administration’s Asia policy has been described as “ignoring diplomacy in Southeast Asia.” [14] Trump also undermined security cooperation with longstanding allies Japan and South Korea by insisting that they pay more for hosting the US’s troops and nuclear umbrella. [15] Both Northeast Asian allies baulked at the transactional approach of Trump, who had sought a quadrupling of Japan’s financial contribution and a fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution. [16] Furthermore, Trump’s pull-out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in 2017 was seen by Japan as undermining their shared economic bulwark against a rising China. [17] Ultimately, his ‘America First’ policy towards long standing allies led to missed opportunities for cooperating on a shared strategy towards China.


Biden’s pick of Kurt Campbell as his top official for Asia policy helps to contrast his China strategy with that of Trump’s. Campbell was President Obama’s top diplomat to the Asia-Pacific, and architect of his ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy. It emphasised strengthening existing alliances and building coalitions to deal with China’s rise. [18]


Like Campbell, Secretary of State Blinken has publicly stated the importance of re-engaging allies in Asia. [13] This shared sentiment among Biden’s top appointees suggest that Asia-Pacific nations serve a foundational role in his China strategy. It implies that Biden’s administration will start by mending ties which have frayed during the Trump years.


However, the longstanding focus of the US’s Asia policy has always been on Northeast Asia, noted Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s former ambassador to the US. [19] The US’s narrow focus on Northeast Asia, except during the Vietnam era, [19] may mean a lacking commitment to involve Southeast Asian countries, for Pivot 2.0 strategy.


Nevertheless, there is some optimism as Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken were part of an Obama administration that expanded its focus into Southeast Asia. [19] Blinken has stated that Biden would “show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues”. [20] Additionally, a day after Blinken’s Senate confirmation, he affirmed to the Philippines’ Foreign Minister in a phone call that the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) extended to the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea. This had been Manila’s concern ever since its territorial conflict with China over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, during which the US military’s inaction had cast doubt on the MDT. [20]


In a similar vein, Sullivan stated in 2019 that the US should increase naval operations in the South China Sea and counter China’s growing claims and military presence [21]. This policy would align with the desire among Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, to prevent China from dominating and dictating terms in the South China Sea. The recent diplomacy and remarks of Biden’s Cabinet suggest that at the very least, the US will increase its diplomatic and security engagement of Southeast Asia above what was seen during Trump’s administration.


Conclusion


At least for the first half of this year, Biden’s administration is expected to be preoccupied with urgent domestic problems: overcoming the pandemic and reversing its economic damage, while dealing with racial and socio-political tensions. This may limit his focus on foreign policy in Asia, which could benefit China.


Given its relatively successful pandemic recovery, China is likely to seize on Biden’s domestic distractions and make gains on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea.


China’s relative recovery from the pandemic also means its continued economic growth will face less hindrances. Coupled with the likelihood of a tough China policy by Biden and future US presidents, this could make US-China relations increasingly prone to the Thucydides Trap. This concept was proposed by the American political scientist Graham Allison, and it alludes to the risk of war when a ruling power feels threatened by a rising power. [22] History is pessimistic about the odds: “In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war.” [22]


One consolation is that the twentieth century’s Cold War superpower rivalry defied the odds, partly because both the US and the Soviet Union had possessed nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, the similar nuclear capabilities between both superpowers gave rise to a situation of mutually assured destruction. [23] Each superpower was deterred from initiating a first strike because it would invite nuclear retaliation by the other, and neither superpower was willing to risk being destroyed. Likewise, the US and China are nuclear states and thus find themselves in a scenario of mutually assured destruction.


In conclusion, Biden’s administration is likely to restore rationality and stability to US-China relations. On one hand, both superpowers will compete in economic, strategic, and military spheres. The US will try to mend relations with its Asian allies and rope them into its strategy toward China. On the other hand, the US will try to increase engagements with China to restore trust and address shared problems like climate change. Singapore’s significant ties with the US and China explain our vulnerability to shifts in US-China relations. In turn, this vulnerability explains why we should accurately discern the changes and continuities in US-China relations under a new US president.




Bibliography:


[1] Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's Speech at the World Peace Forum 2019 (https://www.mfa.gov.sg/Overseas-Mission/Beijing/Mission-Updates/2019/07/Press_20190710)


[2] A US-China deal that lacks trust could be ‘dangerous,’ warns Singapore’s trade minister (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/02/us-china-deal-lacking-trust-is-dangerous-singapores-chan-chun-sing.html)


[3] Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Central Party School (English translation) (https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/speech-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong-central-party-school-english-translation)


[4] Forseeable podcast: What does new US leadership mean for Asia? (https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/podcast/forseeable-podcast-what-does-new-us-leadership-mean-for-asia)


[5] Beijing tells Washington to be less ‘erratic’ on trade war as Xi-Trump meeting nears (https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/2170196/beijing-tells-washington-be-less-erratic-trade-war-xi-trump)


[6] Trump says doesn’t want to talk to Xi right now, could even cut China ties (https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/trump-says-he-wont-renegotiate-phase-one-china-trade-deal)


[7] 100 days of Trump claims (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims/)


[8] Biden’s White House staff ‘rational, consistent,’ echoes style of Biden (https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1207301.shtml)


[9] Barack Obama says Asia-Pacific is 'top US priority' (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-15715446)


[10] Foreseeable podcast: Assistant Professor Yongwook Ryu on a post-Trump Asia (https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/video/foreseeable-podcast-assistant-professor-yongwook-ryu-on-a-post-trump-asia)


[11] Why America Must Lead Again (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again)


[12] The problem with China’s new carbon trading market (https://qz.com/1971281/the-problem-with-chinas-new-carbon-trading-market/)


[13] China rivalry looms over Senate hearings (https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/china-rivalry-looms-over-senate-hearings-us-presidential-inauguration)


[14] Biden Makes His First Bold Move on Asia (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/13/kurt-campbell-biden-asia-china-appointment/)


[15] Trump demands Japan and South Korea pay for nuclear umbrella (https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Comment/Trump-demands-Japan-and-South-Korea-pay-for-nuclear-umbrella)


[16] Tokyo, Washington agree to freeze amount Japan pays to host US troops at US$1.9 billion (https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3122206/tokyo-washington-agree-freeze-amount-japan-pays-host-us-troops)


[17] 5 Priorities for the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2021 (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/news/2020/12/02/493211/5-priorities-u-s-japan-alliance-2021/)


[18] Architect of Obama's 'pivot to Asia' strategy to head policy in region (https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/architect-of-obamas-pivot-to-asia-strategy-to-head-policy-in-region)


[19] Biden's rebuilding project in South-east Asia (https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/bidens-rebuilding-project-in-south-east-asia)


[20] Biden Administration Reaches out to Southeast Asian Allies (https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/biden-administration-reaches-out-to-southeast-asian-allies/)


[21] What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney Got Wrong About America (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/yes-america-can-still-lead-the-world/576427/)


[22] The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War? (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/)


[23] Managing the Cold War 1962-85 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z9jpn39/revision/2)




Jun Hui is a year 3 NUS Economics undergraduate. He is interested in world affairs and foreign policy, and enjoys writing and reading about them. Currently, he is also part of the Operations Team for the 2021 NUS Global Asia Forum.


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