Donald Trump will leave his successor, Joe Biden, a full agenda of foreign-policy challenges including how to shore up relations with allies and partners in Asia – Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and India – and how to deal with adversaries in the region such as China and North Korea. The new president’s advantage, according to Mumbai-born journalist and author Salil Tripathi, is his experience and maturity.
Foreign policy challenges as far as the eye can see: Biden, as vice president, at the Demilitarized Zone looking into North Korea, 2013 (Credit: Sgt Brian Gibbons/US Army)
“It takes a mere four years to destroy what has taken decades to build.”
“The hurricane destroys what is in its path swiftly and with devastating effect; rebuilding the village takes a long time.”
These trite observations are neither Confucian analects nor edicts issued by Asoka – even if they sound like tried-and-tested truisms. But these will do in foretelling the path ahead for Joe Biden, as he prepares to inherit in January the geopolitical landscape that Donald Trump will cede to him. That is assuming the incumbent US president does the honorable thing and leaves the White House gracefully, even if reluctantly, without upending the Resolute desk and shattering the state china. If Trump plays true to form, though, his last ten weeks in office will yield many norm-breaking surprises.
Trump’s view of America – “Make America Great Again” – rested on the assumption that America was no longer great when he assumed office nearly four years ago. And the fault, he felt, lay primarily with his predecessor Barack Obama, and by implication, his 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton, as well as the elite, the Washington-New York consensus of the government and Wall Street, with Silicon Valley offering a helping hand. They globalized the world, leaving the “real” America far behind, and they were in the thrall of the global institutions that had created the post-war architecture: the United Nations and its agencies, the multilateral trading system, the international financial institutions, and so on. Like a petulant child, Trump withdrew the United States from every club that did not play golf on his terms – the human rights body and the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic – and walked off from the world’s largest trade-liberalization mechanism (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP) being created as well as the Paris Accord to slow down climate change.
He called it “America First”; in reality it was America alone.
Biden is an internationalist (he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years and was Obama’s vice-president for eight). He has said he would rejoin these institutions. That is both necessary and desirable, but it is no longer a sufficient condition in rebuilding the international order. The Trump years have mystified and saddened long-term American allies who no longer know whether they can rely on the United States, and emboldened America’s long-term adversaries who can take America for granted.
Even as Trump smugly regards the end of the Pacific trading initiative as one of his few achievements, in the waning days of his administration, China and its Asia-Pacific partners announced the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – an arrangement to reduce tariff without trade conditionality on environment or human rights, which brings together economies with 2.2 billion people including, significantly, US allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Biden is damned if he joins (he depends on union support and unions do not like trade pacts) and damned if he does not (the US economy will need all the help it can get to boost its exports in during the global recession).
As Biden has a grasp of foreign affairs, it is legitimate to expect him to take international relations seriously. But the world beyond Asia offers him a range of challenges. It will not be simple: Reassuring European allies who feel intimidated by growing Russian power; drawing lines over Russian influence in its immediate West, be it the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict or Ukraine; keeping the European Union united, with Poland and Hungary singing from a different hymn sheet and the United Kingdom making a messy exit from the EU. All those are formidable tasks. Rebuilding global institutions and earning the trust that has been squandered over the past four years is the big job.
Yet Asia and its pressing issues can neither be ignored nor put off. First, China. Not only the China that poses a significant technological challenge to the US, but a China that is redrawing alliances in Asia. One area where even Trump’s opponents grudgingly admit he made some headway was in slowing down the march of Chinese tech companies to dominate the global telecommunications infrastructure. The march of Huawei most prominently and TikTok to a limited extent has been halted, and Chinese companies are going to find it harder to raise capital in the West. Biden will have to tread very carefully in navigating this path lest he appear weak.
Unlike Trump, Biden will take a more aggressive stance on China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Western China, and equally as important, the people of Hong Kong. Beijing has speeded up the end of the Basic Law in Hong Kong, like fast-forwarding a movie at double speed, as it aims to squeeze and tame the special administrative region. The former British colony still has rights, but now only in name; how, and whether Biden tries to protect Hong Kong people’s liberties, will be a major challenge for his administration.
To that, add the climate accord. It is important for China to be part of any solution in dealing with the climate crisis. China is making the right noises and has made ambitious commitments under the Paris accord. It is in Biden’s interest to get China to act responsibly. Whether it can be done while criticizing China over Hong Kong or the abuses against Uyghurs, or indeed the threatening of Taiwan, is the question on which Biden’s presidency will be judged.
Biden also needs to assure Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in particular, that the US will play its traditional role of supporting its allies in the Pacific. A lot of bridge-building will be necessary in South Korea, which watched with bemused concern Trump’s desperate attempts to strike an accord with North Korea. As the drama see-sawed through photo opportunities between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and as Trump sought to make Seoul pay more for its defense (or the troops would get withdrawn), South Koreans had legitimate fears over continued American backing. Biden will be able to restore balance, but North Korea will test his patience and tolerance.
Biden may find the choppy waters further south relatively easier to navigate. The constitutionally limited single term of the maverick in ASEAN, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, ends in 2022, and Biden would hope that his successor would be a more reasonable leader. Elsewhere in ASEAN, politics is hardly dull. Malaysia is going through an unstable time, and Thailand is convulsed with street protests. But Biden is unlikely to spend much political capital on Southeast Asia. As ASEAN member states have joined the RCEP, American leverage with the region has certainly diminished.
South Asia poses yet another challenge. Since the time of George W Bush, if not Bill Clinton, American presidents have at last decoupled India and Pakistan, and do not see South Asia as a region to perform a balancing act. American presidents have also been visiting India during their first term, and not keeping an Indian trip as a “goodwill” gesture towards the end of their tenure for photo-ops at the Taj Mahal and Mohandas Gandhi’s memorial, as tended to be the custom in the past. Strategic relations between India and the US will remain close, but only up to a point. American defense hawks are not willing to trust India fully, while India’s sovereignty-minded strategic experts are not keen to comply with American demands for access. But both their militaries have been organizing joint exercises, which will continue.
Biden represents a mixed blessing for India. Indians keen to travel to the United States or live and work there can expect an easier visa regime – in particular the prized H1B stamps for non-immigrant professional employees. This is significant. Many Indian tech companies have relied on those visas to post their engineers in the US, and the resulting boom has benefited both the US and Indian economies. Trump had imposed severe restrictions on the number of visas and has set severe salary requirements which, if implemented, would reduce such visas by more than 90 percent. That would be terrible for the US tech sector, but that was never Trump’s concern; Silicon Valley did not really support Trump’s agenda in any case.
But even if Biden makes it easier for Indians (and others) to travel to and work in the United States, India itself would be wary. There have been several reports about Biden’s remarks on human rights – in particular, he was in the US Senate when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to travel to the US in the early 2000s, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat state, where nearly a thousand people had died in a pogrom, two-thirds of the victims being Muslims.
Besides, as vice president, Kamala Harris is not going to mince words: She has been critical of India’s suspension of special privileges for the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir, which India bifurcated in 2019, jailing opposition leaders without trial. A controversial citizenship act, which makes it easier for refugees of all religions other than Islam from India’s neighborhood to acquire citizenship if they wish, and a process of enumerating Indians to establish a national registry, have alarmed human-rights experts. And rightly so, given that India’s government is unabashedly Hindu nationalist.
Harris’s mother was born in India, but Indians should expect no special favors from either Biden or her, who both view such actions by Delhi poorly. Even though the US sees China as an adversary, and even though China and India have been involved in a border skirmish that has been bloody, despite assurances from Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo during a recent visit, few in India would expect the US to offer meaningful assistance, should Sino-Indian tensions rise again.
With Pakistan, Biden’s primary concern will be security. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, which borders Afghanistan. Washington has already withdrawn a significant number of troops from Afghanistan; the extent to which that will accelerate will depend on strategic considerations, and not overtly political ones, as was being done in the Trump era. Afghanistan remains unstable, and that has a huge impact on Pakistan, which can have a domino effect on India.
Biden has wanted to be president for a long time. He first ran in 1988, then again in 2008. A younger US leader would have been more energetic, but a mature, weathered president is more likely to be astute and wiser in dealing with the many challenges the incoming administration faces. From repairing the global architecture to reviving the US economy, from vanquishing the virus to restoring decency and civility at home and abroad, his agenda is full. He can be excused for paying less attention to many crises than what they deserve. But he cannot afford to ignore any of them.
Emmerson, Donald K. (November 8, 2020) “Biden in Asia: America together?”, East Asia Forum, Canberra, Australia.
Feigenbaum, Evan A. (November 9, 2020) “Biden Faces Immediate Tests in Asia” in “Global Views of a Biden Presidency”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, USA.
Tripathi, Salil. (November 5, 2020) “The hanging verdict’s impact on the world”, Mint, Delhi, India.
Journalist and author