Can a Cautious Biden Deliver Stability to Asia?

By Prof Brad Nelson, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Saint Xavier University, Chicago; and Co-founder and President, Center for World Conflict and Peace

There are few reasons to expect substantial change to Asia policy under a Biden administration, writes long-term US foreign policy analyst Brad Nelson. This makes it all the more important that he appoint a national security and foreign policy team capable of crafting new, imaginative approaches to managing the region’s challenges.

Will a Biden presidency offer Asia greater hope and promise than a second term Trump administration? Many in American chattering circles certainly think so. And we don’t doubt that many in Asia, tired of reading Trump’s Twitter for the latest dose of hyperbole or bombshell, also hope so. But are they right? Unfortunately, probably not.

Sure, a Biden government will likely offer some immediate benefits to Asian nations. It will undoubtedly present a friendlier tone and a more normal, consistent policy process that is sure to be welcomed by most in Asia. And Biden is unlikely to harangue and extort Japan and South Korea for basing fees, which should set US relations with both countries on a firmer footing. And a Biden administration’s probable efforts to elevate multilateralism and institutions in its Asia policy, making it more inclusive and sensitive to local concerns, should soothe parts of Asia, especially Southeast Asia, which has been neglected by the Trump administration. While all of this sounds good, to be sure, these changes are mostly cosmetic, not substantive.

It is unlikely Biden will pursue and implement significant, substantive foreign policy change on Asian affairs. In some ways, Biden will be constrained by the policies put in place by the Trump White House. Trump’s China policy is a clear example. Trump has created a new status quo—consisting of greater confrontation and containment of China—that has bipartisan support in Congress. It will be difficult and costly to change that new status quo. Biden will have to make a convincing case that Trump’s way hasn’t worked (the results are mixed) and that a new approach (yet to be defined) is better. Such tasks are easier said than done. Plus, does Biden really want to spend political capital on fighting over China policy when there are so many domestic ills plaguing the US? It’s doubtful.

Trump and Xi
The confrontational relationship President Trump has built with China has become the status quo in US foreign policy. Image credit: The White House, Flickr.

In other ways, Biden’s personality will dictate against policy change. In terms of personality, ideology, and policy, particularly in today’s political climate, Biden is a relative moderate, a centrist. Sure, he has been pulled to the left on some domestic issues during the campaign, but his basic political profile is set in stone. He’s not a radical, or progressive, or any other shapeshifting buzzword of the day. He’s a status quo guy who likes small incremental policy changes here and there. He’s not going to overturn the US policymaking process. And he’s not going to rewrite America’s Asia policy.

And in fact, on the big picture items, on US strategic policy toward Asia, we should expect Biden largely to keep the status quo. He will probably maintain the so-called “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, keep the Quad (which was revitalised in 2017), and continue the effort to woo India. Additionally, don’t be surprised if Biden does not try to bring the US back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which the Obama administration supported) or pursues big new trade deals, given the mood and economic environment in the US—policy positions that are more in sync with Trump than Barack Obama, the president Biden served under from 2009-2017.

Frankly, the one issue where we’re most likely to see substantive policy change from a Team Biden—on US-North Korean relations—is also the area we are likely to find increased tensions and hostility. It’s a very long shot that Biden meets Kim Jong-un. And he’s unlikely to do a diplomatic dance with Kim unless Kim grants the US meaningful concessions, something he’s been loath to do even with Trump—the one US president who’s lavished Kim with praise and boosted his global standing. Biden will probably return to the strategic patience strategy pursued by the Obama administration, in effect unwinding the small but definitive diplomatic progress made at the leadership level since 2018. When Biden doesn’t give Kim the time and attention he craves, a natural product of strategic patience, we could see severe backsliding in America’s ties with Pyongyang. A return to nuclear tests and ICBM launches could be back on the table in 2021, as a frustrated Kim looks to grab world headlines, lash out at the US, and send the message that he can’t be ignored, no matter how hard the US tries.

Trump and Kim
A Biden Administration would be unlikely to follow the lead of President Trump and boost Kim Jong-un's global standing. Image credit: Christos S, Shutterstock.

To defy these expectations, Biden will have to build pressure for change from within his own administration. Biden is not capable of engendering change alone; Congress is unlikely to push it, and the American public is divided and distracted. He will have to look elsewhere for inspiration for policy reform. For these reasons, it is incumbent that he make inspired national security staffing decisions at the senior levels of his administration. Heads of consequential US departments, like State, CIA, Defense, Treasury, and their deputies play an important role in helping to shape American foreign policy and a crucial role in implementing it. These folks can effect change. Toward that end, Biden should not use the same old Washington playbook of hiring old partisan hands from previous presidential administrations to carry out America’s Asia policy—or US foreign policy more generally. All that will do is yield the same old US policies toward the region—policies that were often ill-suited then, and would be even more ill-suited now. He needs to prioritise independent and unorthodox thinking by senior staff, avoiding those who are beholden to Washington groupthink or democratic talking points. This is the only way he gets a vital injection of fresh and novel ideas into his foreign policy apparatus.

Of course, the above discussion begs a question: What are some examples of fresh and novel foreign policy ideas? First, we need to think about US goals in Asia. These would include: policies and strategies that reduce regional conflict and hostility, the safety of US allies, the maintenance of free and open shipping lanes, enhanced regional problem solving (COVID, climate change, nuclear proliferation, etc.), and avoidance of a potential ‘Thucydides Trap’ with China in which the rise of a new power to challenge a declining power is viewed as making violent conflict likely. To fulfill those missions, the US could move in a number of different directions, preferably ones that aren’t underpinned by America’s addiction to liberal hegemony. Out-of-the-box approaches include: building a Concert of Asia, fostering regional power sharing, or even implementing former Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s notion of “dynamic equilibrium”, in which a loose alignment of states aims to manage specific challenges within the framework of a rules-based order.

Delving into the specifics of these three prospective policies is regrettably beyond the scope of this piece. What can be said, though, is each of the three are grounded in the principles of regional openness, cooperation, multilateralism, and a diffusion of influence and responsibilities – key features of a stable, inclusive, and prosperous Asia, a region in which the US doesn’t feel required or burdened to dominate in order to protect itself and its interests. In capitals across the region, governments will be hoping that Biden, or a second term Trump government, leans into the spirit of these ideas.

Brad Nelson is an adjunct professor of political science at Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois, and co-founder and president of the Center for World Conflict and Peace. His twitter is @BNNelson74.

Banner image: Former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks to crowd at campaign rally, Pittsburgh, USA - April 29, 2019. Credit: Paris Malone, Shutterstock.