FOCUS: Biden looks better than Trump for Asia, but may prove soft on China

Oct 28 , 2020. – 21 hours ago – 14:05 By Ko Hirano, KYODO NEWS

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in a Town Hall format meeting on Oct. 15, 2020, in Philadelphia. (Getty/Kyodo)

TOKYO – oe Biden appears to be a better choice for Japan and other countries in Asia than President Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election next week, some analysts say, citing the Democratic challenger’s predictability in policy conduct and emphasis on alliances in keeping an increasingly assertive China in check.

No matter who wins the Nov. 3 poll, however, Washington’s tough stance toward Beijing is likely to continue. If elected president, Biden would not reprise — at least initially — what critics say was a soft approach that primarily focused on engagement with China under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.

Criticizing Trump’s dismissive and transactional approach to U.S. allies under his “America First” mantra, Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said, “Most allies and partners in Asia, including Japan, are hoping for some degree of predictability, a level of ‘normalcy’ or convention in foreign policy conduct, and Mr. Biden is more likely to offer that.”

“It is not a completely unified opinion. There is a view, whereby Mr. Trump appears to be more determined to counter China, at least to the general public,” Le Thu said, in reference to the Republican president’s hard-line policy toward Beijing over trade, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Given sharply deteriorating views of China in the United States and among its allies, Le Thu and other experts say they do not expect to see a major change in Washington’s China policy after the election, and that strategic competition between the two powers will continue in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

“China knows that regardless of who becomes the next president, the U.S. and China are in a fierce competition and rivalry for the long haul,” said Lee Seong Hyon, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. “A Biden presidency won’t be automatically easier for Beijing.”

According to a new survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 73 percent of respondents in the United States have negative views of China, up 13 percentage points from last year and nearly 20 points since Trump took office in 2017, and marking the highest level on record.

U.S. allies and like-minded countries are similarly critical of Beijing’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong and the militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea. The Pew survey showed unfavorable views of China reaching 86 percent in Japan, 81 percent in Australia and 75 percent in South Korea.

Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said that what is at stake is the existence of a rules-based order. “Everyone is concerned about China and some of its policies,” he said, taking aim at Beijing’s attempts to alter the regional status quo by force or coercion.

“No one thinks the U.S. — whether under Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden — will be soft on China,” Tay said. “A contest will continue but hopefully like a boxing match with rules, and not an all-out, no-holds-barred ‘war.'”

A second Trump administration might not be so bad for China, according to Lee, because “Mr. Trump has weakened the U.S. alliance system in Asia, which Beijing sees as Washington’s primary security tool to contain it. He hurts America’s image and soft power in the world and he divides American society inwardly.”

“For China, Trump’s America is the proof of how dysfunctional a democratic system can be,” he said.

Echoing the disappointment voiced by officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Tay lamented how Trump had absented himself from the last three annual meetings of the East Asia Summit in an apparent show of disdain for multilateralism. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended all.

Underscoring a pullback in America’s global leadership, the latest study by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, found the United States had the largest fall in relative power of any Indo-Pacific country in 2020, with its 10-point lead over second-place China in 2018 halving.

Many, however, believe the United States could recover lost ground by recommitting to the multilateral system and to bodies and deals such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement — an approach Biden has supported. Trump has effectively pulled the United States out of both the WHO and the 2015 U.N. accord to fight climate change.

Lee and Tay argue that while it is tempting to conclude Biden would be a better choice for the region, there are concerns that he may eventually take a less confrontational stance toward China given the need to seek cooperation from the country on issues like climate change and denuclearization of North Korea.

Such concerns stemmed from what some officials in the region saw as unnecessary delays by the Obama-Biden White House to approve a Pentagon request in 2015 that Washington send military aircraft and ships to curb Beijing’s rapid construction of artificial islands in the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan in the strategic waterway through which about one-third of global trade passes.

Together with Obama’s avoidance of direct military action in Syria, his initial hesitance about launching freedom of navigation operations in challenging China’s man-made territorial claims sparked disquiet among U.S. allies that Beijing’s ambitions with regard to the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets administered by Japan but claimed by China, would go unchecked.

Trump, in contrast, did not bother to cooperate with China on global warming — which he once described as a “hoax” invented by the emerging powerhouse, also the world’s biggest carbon emitter — or on North Korea, choosing instead to deal directly with the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.

“Some of the advisers to Mr. Biden are advocates for reconciliation with China. What that means is that even though Mr. Biden will be tough to China initially, as times passes, he may soften his policy toward Beijing,” Lee said.

“If Mr. Biden becomes president, the world must carefully monitor him and where America is heading for a while,” he said.