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Bill Emmott: Under Biden, US goal in Asia must be to balance Chinese power

Bill Emmott

Four years ago it was said, probably accurately, that Hillary Clinton may have been the only Democratic Party candidate that Donald Trump stood a chance of beating. Now, something similar can be said about Joe Biden: Donald Trump was probably the only Republican this 78-year-old uncharismatic Washington insider could have beaten, and even then the decisive factor in Biden's favour was likely the coronavirus pandemic.

    On such chances are electoral outcomes made. Which should remind us: although the personality of the occupant of the White House matters greatly, it is the longer-term trends in a country and in the world that matter much more, especially for foreign policy.

    For that reason, the key question in looking ahead at the presidency of Joseph R Biden and asking what he and his Cabinet might achieve in global affairs must be the longer-term trends rather than simply the personality of the man in the Oval Office. Will President Biden accommodate his administration's policy to those longer-term trends and find a way to fit America's interests to those of the world? Or will he try to fight the long-term trends, causing unpredictability and perhaps conflict as he does so?

    All presidencies are, in truth, a mixture of both of these tendencies, of accommodating to long-term trends and of fighting against the trends, along with having to react to unforeseen events. President George W Bush entered office in 2001 pledging to step back from activist American behaviour around the world, but the terrorist attack of 9/11 forced him to change approach less than nine months after entering office, embarking on the country's two biggest military conflicts since the Vietnam War. He attempted to actively promote democracy and defeat the spread of weapons of mass destruction but ended up confirming the long-term trend of declining American power.

    President Barack Obama tried to accommodate his country to long-term trends by his "pivot to Asia" and by seeking to withdraw the United States from his predecessor's military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, while at the same time fighting trends by pressing for global nuclear disarmament talks. His presidency, however, was really shaped by the 2008 global financial crisis that just pre-dated his election, weakening the U.S. economically while also exposing deep political divides within the nation.

    President Donald Trump came to power by exploiting and even exacerbating those political divides. In office, his foreign policy emphasis was on fighting the trend of the decline of American global power by acting aggressively against both U.S. allies and rivals alike, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and opening direct talks with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Yet he also accommodated long-term trends by reducing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and leaving both Russia and China more freedom of manoeuvre in their regions. He didn't say that that was what he was doing, but that is what the outcome was: for example, compared with 2016 China now has greater control over the South China Sea, has more influence over North Korea, and has greater economic influence in South-East Asia, having even joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade arrangement.

    Given that Joe Biden was Obama's vice-president and comes from the U.S. political mainstream, it is safe to predict that his intended balance between these tendencies will be toward the accommodation of long-term trends rather than trying to fight them. As every commentator has remarked, this will mean a renewed emphasis on maintaining and working within U.S. alliances in Europe and East Asia. What every commentator has also added is an expectation that Biden will follow closely the Trump administration's tough, adversarial policy toward China, on the argument that one of Trump's achievements has been to change the political narrative towards China in a bipartisan way.

    Yet it is fair to ask oneself: What does this actually mean? Biden will rebuild alliances. He will take an adversarial approach to China. So does this mean he will use stronger U.S. alliances to confront China, perhaps by ganging up on China on chosen issues? But what if the allies disagree with this approach? The European Union concluded a new investment agreement with China right at the end of 2020, not bothering to wait to consult the incoming Biden administration. And what if the U.S. actually needs to collaborate with China on some issues, as it does over climate change, which is another of Biden's emphases. Unlike Trump he does not plan to fight the trend toward a global approach to mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but rather to rejoin it. How can he collaborate with the Chinese if he is also confronting them, treating them as strategic rivals?

    We are just a few weeks into the Biden presidency, so it is too soon for there to be any clues to this conundrum. As we also know, Biden's biggest task is to tackle not just the pandemic health and economic crises but more importantly the deep political divide that Trump has exposed, exploited and exacerbated. Just as the Obama administration was shaped by the 2008 financial crisis, so the Biden administration is bound to be shaped by this legacy and challenge.

    In foreign affairs, my suspicion is that the answer to the apparent contradiction will lie in the Biden Cabinet's approach toward China. Politically, he has to talk tough. But in practice, I doubt if he will really choose to be confrontational. His position will be more like Japan's: to engage, to accept the reality of Chinese power but also to defend America's national interests strongly whenever necessary. There is no real option of a so-called "new Cold War" nor of "containment", to use a cold war term.

    As his closest adviser on Asia, Kurt Campbell, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, the real U.S. goal in the region must be one of balancing Chinese power, of maintaining America's presence so as to prevent Chinese hegemony from developing; and to assist that by ensuring that countries in the region see America as having legitimacy in its actions and intentions, ideally a greater legitimacy and trust than China does. That was really the purpose of Obama's "pivot to Asia."

    Biden's task will be to make the Obama pivot real, credible, clearly permanent and, above all, a presence that is supported by America's allies including Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and Australia. It is not a matter of confronting or containing China but rather of balancing China. We shall see how it goes.

    (Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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