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After the elections: where next for US/Asia relations?

After the elections: where next for US/Asia relations?

Dr Bijan Omrani, Editor of the Asian Affairs Journal, reports on this week’s RSAA online expert panel discussion.

The day after the US presidential election (Wednesday 4th November, when the final results were still unknown), the RSAA hosted an online panel discussion with four experts on US-Asia policy to discuss what direction the relationship between the US and Asian nations might take under the next administration.

The participants were Professor Bradford McGuinn (University of Miami); Jennifer Staats (director of East and Southeast Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, USIP); James Schwemlein (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace); and Eyck Freymann (University of Oxford, author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World). The hour-long discussion was moderated by Michael Ryder, RSAA Chief Executive. This weblog article records some of the main ideas raised in the course of the wide-ranging dialogue.

Broad approaches

Although at the time of the panel discussion (and still at the time of writing, 5th November) the result of the presidential election was still unclear, the panel generally agreed that there was likely to be a stronger note of continuity rather than change in US-Asia policy in the event of a Biden presidency. Major differences in policy between administrations were unlikely, and an overwhelming bi-partisan consensus exists in Washington over Asia policy, and particularly in policy towards China.

However, the most likely difference in a new Biden administration would be one of style and approach. The approach of Biden would likely be institutionalist, and would favour multi-lateral and collaborative approaches to deal with foreign policy issues. This would be in contrast to President Trump, whose style has been characterised by eccentricity and volatility in dealing particularly with conflict zones, not to mention a pronounced preference for working bi-laterally rather than multi-laterally.

One factor likely to cause difficulties for a new Biden administration would be continuing internal volatility in Washington. In particular, a senate evenly split between the two parties could be a persistent obstacle, particularly given its constitutional powers over the ratification of foreign treaties. 

China, North and South Korea, and South East Asia

It was suggested that China was unlikely to have a preference been a Trump and a Biden administration. At present, China is undergoing a new moment of assertiveness, similar to that which was frequently referred to be commentators in the years after the Credit Crunch, particularly between 2008-10. These years were marked particularly by increasing territorial assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea and over disputed islands. During that time, the former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, during a visit to Beijing, was told when he attempted to offer economic advice to China that “we don’t think you’re a good role model any more.” A similar dynamic is now also apparent. Beijing views the CCP model for beating Covid-19 as an indication of its own success, and a sign of failure of the West, as well as an invitation for it to become more assertive in foreign policy.

In these circumstances, the panel speculated that China might attempt to test the resolve of a new Biden administration by engendering a crisis sometime in 2021, perhaps over Taiwan. Similarly, North Korea might also attempt to test a Biden administration, possibly by means of a new missile crisis, by way of nuclear tests or territorial incursions.

With regard to these possibilities, a Biden administration would have to decide how much it wants to commit militarily to US allies in Asia, particularly South Korea. South Korea is reliant on its partnership with the US, but it is also closely integrated into China’s supply chains, and therefore needs to have a balance between these competing influences. Trump has taken a relatively tough line towards South Korea on the expense and value for money of the US military deployment there, and South Korea fears that the US will consider it of less importance in future. Nevertheless, President Trump has managed to maintain the popularity of the US in South East Asia over the course of his administration by maintaining a hard (although sometimes vacillating) line towards China in his rhetoric. South east Asian nations do not want to choose between the US and China, but wish to see a balance maintained between the two powers.

Biden, should he become President, will be under pressure from his current group of Asia advisers (for example Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell) to take a hawkish position on East Asia. However, he may face opposition from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party over such an approach. Foreign policy circles in the Party are facing the challenge that there is a lack of confidence in many of the neo-liberal assumptions of the Obama era, such as that future trends would point much more firmly to international integration and cooperation.

The US-China relationship is currently at its lowest ebb in many years, and there is no sign of any immediate improvement in prospect. This is not just as a result of the tensions resulting from Covid-19. There have been many festering structural problems which have been linked to the growth of Chinese power and influence. Official communications between the US and China have atrophied over the last six months, including the expulsion of US journalists from China, and the mutual closure of consulates. This trend is not likely to change in the near-term, regardless of who will win the US presidency. Each side feels deep distrust towards the other, and is hesitant to pursue co-operation. However, the panel observed that there are many significant global problems which need US-China cooperation for their resolution. Both sides need to invest significant efforts to re-establish co-operation and trust to solve problems; for the US, this will be hard, no matter who is the next president.

Indo-Pacific Security

The panel observed that one particular success of the current administration that was likely to endure was the revival of the “Quad” – the Indo-Pacific security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US, which after a brief appearance in 2007-8 was re-established in a more permanent form in 2017 under US encouragement. This was a particular achievement as since 1945 there had been no real equivalent to NATO (except for the ineffective SEATO, which was dissolved in 1977) in the region. It is notable that other nations are now interested in joining the activities of the Quad; for example, the German government recently expressed an interest in joining active naval exercises and playing a wider role in Indo-Pacific security. 

The next administration will face the challenge of further institutionalising and strengthening this network, which offers a credible opportunity to balance China and the strategic influence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region. As with South East Asia, India is also concerned with the security threats posed by a more-assertive China, and is looking for new partners and alignments to manage them. The developing alliance between India and Washington is a mark of this, and is likely to grow during the next administration as India seeks to maintain the US as a counterbalance to Chinese power in the region.

Iran, the nuclear deal, sanctions, and the China connection

President Trump has been a consistent critic of the multilateral nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 group of countries (more formally the JCPOA, between China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, plus Germany, along with the European Union). Over his administration, he has attempted to withdraw the US from its obligations under the treaty, which was a legacy from the Obama presidency in 2015. Iran may also, as a result of the actions of the Trump administration, regard itself as now being outside its obligations under the JCPOA, and thus be undertaking actions prohibited under the treaty.

There is a bipartisan consensus that many areas of Iran’s behaviour in Asia, besides its potential nuclear ambitions, needs to be managed. However, Biden may take the approach that a change in tack towards Iran is necessary from the Trump administration, with a return to the institutional approaches of both the Obama and Bush administrations.

One problem of the current approach, with the maximum-pressure sanctions now being applied, is that there is a limit to their efficacy, and this policy towards Iran has now reached such a limit. In the words of the current US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, “you run out of people to sanction;” there is no exit policy from the current situation. However, if Biden wishes to make a return to the JCPOA, such a policy could present difficulties, particularly because of the damage caused to multi-lateral relationships over the last four years. As a result, it may be difficult to lift sanctions in the near term.

One particular aspect in such a calculation is the potential for a deeper relationship developing between China and Iran. In June 2021, presidential elections will also be held in Iran, and the current regime there is likely only to allow a hard-liner with connections to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to stand for the position. Iranian hard-liners have been calling for a “look East” policy and the development of closer links with China. Years of US sanctions have skewed the Iranian regime in favour of a stronger relationship with China and increased the prospects of such a détente. Such a development over the longer term would pose considerable strategic challenges in the region. The strict enforcement of sanctions has been enough to deter China from developing such a relationship, and this desire to keep China at bay is likely to mean that a new Biden administration would be unwilling to offer any concessions on Iran in the short-term. However, particularly with a view to the danger of Iran falling into the Chinese orbit, a Biden administration may be minded to renew engagements with Iran in the longer term. It should be noted that Iran-Russia relationships have been maturing in a similar fashion as a result of sanctions, and this may also induce similar considerations in a new administration.

Tech empires and strategic threats

The panel discussed the bi-partisan consensus over the strategic threat posed to the US by the increasing influence of Chinese tech products and platforms, both in the developed and developing world. China has been attempting to promote not only the development of 5G in many countries through Huawei – a matter which is well-known – but also it has been developing online payment and consumer platforms such as WeChat and Tencent, which it has also been promoting in many countries worldwide. Whilst this might seem innocuous, these platforms have the potential to threaten and supplant US-dominated payment clearing structures, particularly SWIFT, which is a vital tool in the enforcement of sanctions. If China can achieve a global take-up of these new payment structures, it would be able to overcome the hegemony of SWIFT; it would also challenge the status of the dollar as the global reserve currency, by promoting the use of the RMB as the lead currency for clearing global transactions. China is particularly pushing these payment platforms in lower-income countries where the US has little sway. These matters are the subject of earnest discussion in Washington DC, and the US is supporting the development of rival platforms, particularly in collaboration with Indian companies. Such an effort is designed to generate versatile mobile payment apps to offer to developing countries, which could compete with Chinese offerings such as Tencent.

The US sanctions regime against Russia has prompted greater cooperation between Russia and China in tech matters, with the danger that Russia will acquiesce in and assist China’s development of separate payment and other platforms which will threaten US dominance. Nonetheless, there is some disquiet in Russia (particularly in its defence establishment) about China’s increasing influence in Russian technical infrastructure, and fears that such infrastructure will be a panopticon for China into Russia, and particularly into its military affairs. This being so, there may be the prospect in the medium term for a détente between Russia and the US in the face of increasing Chinese tech power, as the US and Russia acknowledge their shared interests in this respect. Henry Kissinger observed that US strategy towards Russia and China should be for the US to be closer to each of these countries than each are to the other. This may well seem difficult today, but it could well turn into necessary policy in the medium term.

Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East

An increasingly authoritarian Turkey, with its increasingly close (although volatile) relationship with Russia, is causing general vexation in Washington, and will pose a difficult problem for the next administration; there are no obvious solutions which have been put forward by either party in DC.

Russia’s influence in Syria, which grew considerably over the Trump administration, although it has suffered a number of difficulties and setback, is strongly ensconced. It is not clear whether there is any prospect of a new policy response in the near future from the next administration.

Turkey has caused problems in terms of its attitude towards NATO, its recent testing of a Russian air defence system, its aggressive posture towards other European countries in the region, its role in Libya, and its increasingly undemocratic character.

One change of approach which may be taken in a new Biden administration is the idea of generating a “community of democracies” – a new type of G7 which could include countries such as South Korea and India. This approach would attempt to make a normative statement on democracy for the Middle East and Asia, which would be intended to check the rise of China and the influence of Russia.

Whilst this approach, with its intention of preventing backsliding from democracy, may be attractive in theory, a Biden administration will have to acknowledge that it is not a perfect strategy to maintain effective competition against China. In order to compete with China, the US will have to do business with or otherwise cooperate and maintain strong relationships with totalitarian or semi-democratic states such as India, Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines. A new Biden administration, as a result, is unlikely to bring sticks instead of carrots if it wishes to maintain relationships with these states, and to prevent the further expansion of Chinese corporate power.

Bijan Omrani.

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