As Asia comes to terms with the reality of US president-elect Joe Biden taking over the White House, relief and hopes of economic and environmental revival jostle with needling anxiety and fears of inattention.
From security to trade to climate change, a powerful US reach extends to nearly every corner of the Asia-Pacific region. In his four years in office, US President Donald Trump shook the foundations of US relations with Asian nations as he courted traditional rivals and attacked allies with frequency and relish.
Now, as Biden looks to settle tumultuous domestic issues, there is widespread worry that Asia might end up as an afterthought. Allies might go untended. Rivals, and especially China, that immense US competitor for regional supremacy, might do as it likes.
In the wake of perhaps the most contentious presidency in recent US history, here is a look at how its aftermath might play out in one of the world’s most important and volatile regions.
Biden will likely look there first. The two nations are inexorably entwined, economically and politically, even as the US military presence in the Pacific chafes against China’s expanded effort to have its way in what it sees as its natural sphere of influence.
Under Trump, the two rivals engaged in a trade dispute and a lively exchange of verbal hostilities.
A Biden administration could have a calming effect on those frayed ties, said Alexander Huang (黃介正), a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in New Taipei City and a former Taiwan national security official.
“I’d expect Biden to return to the more moderate, less confrontational approach of the [former US president Barack] Obama era toward China-US relations,” he said.
Greater outreach to China could prompt Washington to play down its support for Taiwan, without necessarily reducing US commitment to ensure that the nation can defend itself against Chinese threats, Huang said.
Retired chemical engineer Tang Ruiguo echoed a view shared by many in China of an unstoppable decline of the US from its global superpower status.
“No matter who is elected, I feel the US may go into turmoil and unrest and its development will be affected,” Tang said.
Say goodbye to the summits. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went from threats of war to three unprecedented meetings, which, although high-profile media events, did nothing to rid the North of its banned nuclear-tipped long-range missiles.
Kim must now adjust to a man his propaganda services once condemned as a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death.”
Biden, for his part, has called Kim a “butcher” and “thug,” and said that Trump has gifted a dictator with legitimacy and “three made-for-TV summits” that produced no disarmament progress.
Biden has endorsed a slower approach built from working-level meetings and said that he would be willing to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang until it takes concrete denuclearization steps.
North Korea, which has yet to show any willingness to fully deal away a nuclear arsenal that Kim might see as his strongest guarantee of survival, prefers a summit-driven process that gives it a better chance of pocketing instant concessions that would otherwise be rejected by lower-level diplomats.
For South Korea, the new US president would likely demonstrate more respect toward its treaty ally than Trump, who unilaterally downsized joint military training and constantly complained about the cost of the 28,500 US troops stationed in the South to defend against North Korea.
The resignation this year of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe ended one of Trump’s few close, productive relationships with a foreign leader.
There is hope in Tokyo that Biden’s more progressive ecological policies would help Japanese green companies and that he would take a hard line on China, with which Japan is in constant competition.
However, there is also worry.
The US under Biden “cannot afford to take care of other countries, and it has to prioritize its own reconstruction,” said Hiro Aida, a professor at Kansai University.
As Biden is consumed with his nation’s many domestic troubles, from racial unrest to worries about the economy, healthcare and COVID-19, Japan could be left alone as China pursues its territorial ambitions and North Korea expands its nuclear efforts, said Peter Tasker, a Tokyo-based analyst at Arcus Research.
AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was in office when Trump was elected, might have spoken for many when he tweeted congratulations to Biden, saying: “What a relief that you won.”
There is hope that Biden would do better than the Trump administration, which in 2018 granted Australian manufacturers exemptions from US steel and aluminum tariffs before reportedly having a change of heart a year later.
For New Zealand, there are aspirations to sell more milk and beef under a US administration that is more open to free trade.
New Zealand and other Pacific nations also hope that Biden might help ease tensions with China.
New Zealand has found itself stuck between the two superpowers, relying on China as its biggest trading partner while maintaining traditional defense and intelligence ties with the US.
Not much is expected change with the host of security and defense ties shared by India and the US.
However, a Biden administration could mean a much closer look at India’s spotty human rights and religious freedom records, which were largely ignored by Trump.
Biden is also expected to be more critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalistic policies, which critics say oppress India’s minorities, said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center think tank.
The countries would work more closely to counterbalance China, a shared rival, Kugelman said.
A Biden White House would not “risk antagonizing a country that is widely viewed in Washington as America’s best strategic bet in South Asia,” he said.
Some countries in the region, such as Malaysia, have pivoted toward China because of heavy investment and a focus on economic recovery, and “it will take time for the US to rebuild trust,” said Bridget Welsh, a research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. “US power will never be what it was.”
Biden is also likely to be more wary in his dealings with strongman leaders like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based analyst.
“A more cautious Biden could also mean a degree of stability in relations with tricky allies and partners in Southeast Asia and the region,” Heydarian said. “We are going to see American leadership, but much more in conjunction with regional players and powers, including Japan, Australia, India, European powers” and Southeast Asia.
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