In the last four years of the Trump presidency, there has been no shortage of inflammatory rhetoric directed towards both partners and competitors in the Asia-Pacific. With the Biden administration now about to take office, APARC convened a center-wide panel to discuss how different regions of the Asia-Pacific are responding to the incoming presidency and recent events in the United States, and what issues the new administration should consider as it moves into a new era of U.S.-Asia policies. The panelists included APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, FSI Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, Japan Program Director Kiyoteru Tsutsui, Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson, and Shorenstein Fellow Thomas FingarWatch the full discussion below:
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Soft Power and U.S.-China Competition
One thing the Trump administration has identified correctly and managed to get consensus on, says Chinese military and security expert Oriana Skylar Mastro is that the United States is in a great-power competition with China. Biden now accepts this framework, and Mastro expects him to maintain the basic principles of U.S. Asia policy, such as strategic ambiguity and ensuring Taiwan’s defense through arms sales. The difference will be in Biden’s approach, which is based on “multilateralism, strengthening partnerships, and not trying to provoke Beijing for the sake of provoking Beijing.” This approach, believes Mastro, is going to improve the U.S. position in terms of competition.
A core component of the U.S.-China great-power competition, however, is soft power — the ability of countries to get what they want through persuasion or attraction in the form of culture, values, and policies. Soft power, argues Mastro, is an area that is very hard for a president to have control over and rebuild, and American soft power has taken a tremendous hit with the breach of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Demonstrating the decline of American democracy, the scenes from the pro-Trump mob attack have been a win for China and are hardly encouraging for U.S. partners and allies.
Biden can do a lot to tackle U.S. domestic problems and improve the political image of America abroad. But soft power, concludes Mastro, is organic. “I fear that President-elect Biden is going to learn that soft power, once lost, is very difficult to regain.”
The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Security in the Asia-Pacific
In shifting to relations between the United States and Japan, Kiyoteru Tsutsui focuses on how the traditional aspects of the Japan-U.S. alliance are playing out in the current geopolitical theater. In Tsutsui’s view, Japan’s early brushes with Chinese might in the 2010s has left the country particularly keen on ensuring that a strong counterbalance exists to China’s strategic advantage.
To that end, Japan has proactively partnered with other nations on trade deals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The fact that both of these major free trade agreements were concluded without U.S. involvement is significant, and whether President Biden makes any response will be “one the more closely watched issues among foreign policy experts in the coming years,” by Tsutsui’s measure.
The reemergence of ‘the Quad,’ and even discussions of a ‘Quad+’ that includes nations such as South Korea, is of particular interest to Tsutsui. Such groups provide additional avenues for further developing the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy originally envisioned by Prime Minister Abe. But Tsutsui is also not opposed to the idea of engaging China directly in multilateral efforts as long as China understands the U.S. and Japan’s resolve in countering Chinese aggression and non-peaceful ambitions.
The Korean Peninsula in the Spotlight
When it comes to engagement on the Korean peninsula, Gi-Wook Shin hopes the new administration will avoid a reactionary response and backsliding into old habits. The temptation to respond with an “anything but Trump’s” approach to handling relations with North Korea may be strong, particularly given the president’s unusually forward relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Shin counsels to not set aside everything Trump did in regards to the DPRK.
“Bringing North Korea and Kim Jong Un more into the international community was an important step that no other president has made,” he says. Shin strongly cautions against a return to the strategic patience typical of the Obama era. With Kim’s consolidated control and North Korea’s wielding far more advanced nuclear capabilities and significantly strengthened ties to China than it did eight years ago, a return to previous patterns of diplomacy would fail to address the present circumstances on the Korean peninsula. Shin urges the Biden administration to reemphasize human rights and deepening dialogues with its diplomatic counterparts in Seoul. He foresees an improvement in U.S.-ROK relations but warns that North Korea can be a source of tension between the two allies.
Opportunities for Allies in Southeast Asia
Donald Emmerson also recommends strengthening diplomatic ties to the nations of Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By his assessment, “ASEAN needs creativity. It needs new ideas rather than simply following the path of least resistance.” Emmerson envisions this well-spring of creativity coming in part from robust new efforts by the United States to engage with the region diplomatically and academically.
Existing forums such as the Bali Democracy Forum can provide a ready-made platform for engagement, while active participation in gatherings such as the Global Town Hall organized earlier this year by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) provide easy opportunities for the United States to meaningfully engage with Southeast Asia.
An Outlook on the Broader Asia-Pacific
Closing out the panel’s remarks, Thomas Fingar offers measured optimism for the future. “I think the incoming U.S. approach to the countries in Asia, China included, is going to be pragmatic and instrumental, not transactional. Every nation who thinks they can contribute, does contribute, and is willing to play by a rules-based order can be part of the solution.”
Fingar expects the Biden administration’s foreign policy to be “focused on problems, not places” — to be driven less by particular animosity or affection for certain countries and more by addressing global issues that promote American interests, such as climate change, the impediments in the international system to advancing American economy, and preserving security.
By consensus, the incoming Biden administration’s most immediate concerns are overwhelmingly domestic. But as Mastro articulated, the effects of the United States’ domestic policies directly impact its perception, standing, and sphere of influence around the globe.
Effective relationships between the United States and the Asia-Pacific cannot be sustained in the long term with an ongoing ‘America first’ agenda or by pursuing zero-sum goals. Rather, the Biden administration must focus on finding solutions to multilateral needs by working side-by-side with Asian nations as co-sponsors and co-leaders.