When it comes to U.S. policy on Northeast Asia — and China, in particular — one question has surrounded Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden: Will he be an “Obama 2.0” for the region?
The answer is yes and no.
The former vice president, who formally accepted his party’s nomination Thursday, is renowned for his foreign policy chops, having served for years as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a point-man for then-President Barack Obama on a number of key initiatives in the region, offering his boss valued and at times divergent opinions.
But Biden’s rival in the November election, President Donald Trump, has hinted that the former vice president’s policy toward the region would merely be a continuation of Obama’s “pivot” or “re-balance” to Asia, which Biden was deeply involved in.
The pivot, which was intended to signify shifting diplomatic, information, military and economic resources to Asia to increase cooperation broadly — and in many ways contain and channel China’s vast ambitions peacefully — yielded mixed results. Critics have latched on to the widely perceived failure of the Obama administration to more actively confront China in those arenas.
Trump, in particular, has used his campaign to shift focus from the pandemic-hit U.S. economy to China, which he has blamed for the deadly coronavirus and ensuing economic malaise.
“China will own the United States if this election is lost by Donald Trump,” the president said last week. “If I don’t win the election, China will own the United States. You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.”
Biden, who as a young senator in 1979 was part of the first delegation to visit China after the U.S. normalized ties with the country, has also taken a harder line against Beijing. Early in his Senate career, he called a rising Beijing “a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.” Now, he regularly battles with Trump to be the toughest on Beijing among the two candidates.
Tough on China
Although some observers have dismissed the former vice president’s shift as an election ploy, Bilahari Kausikan, former Singaporean ambassador-at-large, says concerns about Chinese behavior “are substantive and not the result of the political dynamics of the day.”
In any future Biden White House, he said, competition and rivalry with Beijing would be a given.
“I don’t think Biden would have much choice but to continue to be tough on China,” Kausikan said in an interview. “There is a bipartisan consensus that certain aspects of Chinese behavior are against American interests and Biden would not want to appear weak.”
This sentiment was echoed by James Carafano, vice president for national security and foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
“Regardless of who is president next year, U.S. presence and engagement in the region will continue to grow,” Carafano said. “China has a lot of cards to play, so the policies of the next administration, again regardless of who is president, will have to respond to Beijing.”
And with the Sino-U.S. rivalry surging into overdrive, Biden backers say that even if they wanted to, turning back the clock and attempting to rekindle the days of the Obama White House would be an impossibility.
“A Biden administration is not going to be the Obama administration if only for the very simple reason that the world is not the world that it used to be … and China is not the county that the Obama administration dealt with. Unfortunately, neither is the United States,” said Daniel Russel, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017.
Biden’s ‘deep bench’
Nevertheless, Trump has repeatedly attempted to use his predecessor as a cudgel against Biden.
But Russel, who has no formal role with the Biden campaign but is close to the candidate’s top foreign policy advisers, views its links to the Obama White House as far more of an electoral asset than a liability, saying that the former vice president “has a very deep bench of advisers and supporters who have rich experience in Asia.”
“He can call on an ultralarge number of tested veterans of the Obama administration to support his efforts to strengthen and recover lost ground after four years of chaos,” he said.
Indeed, Biden’s team of informal foreign policy and national security advisers has topped a whopping 2,000 people, according to a report in Foreign Policy late last month that cited campaign officials and an internal list.
With that kind of experience at his disposal, Biden may already have a head start in how he plans to tackle one of his key objectives if elected: rebuilding the United States’s alliances and re-focusing on diplomacy, what he has called “the first instrument of American power.”
“America’s security, prosperity and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us,” he said in a foreign policy address at the City University of New York in July last year. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”
The Democratic Party’s platform passed at this week’s national convention, while largely symbolic since Biden does not need to endorse its positions, has also focused on alliances, vowing to “reinvent” them “to meet common challenges that no country can face on its own.”
Such an approach would be welcomed in Seoul and Tokyo, which have come under intense pressure by the Trump administration to dole out more cash for the basing of American troops there — even as the threats from neighboring North Korea and China continue to grow.
Return to ‘strategic patience’?
On the North Korean nuclear threat, Biden has said he would not meet with leader Kim Jong Un without “preconditions.” Trump has met with Kim three times, meetings Biden said had been a gift to the young dictator, bestowing him with a sense of “legitimacy.”
He told The New York Times that personal diplomacy akin to Trump’s dealings with Kim would only happen if it was “part of an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”
The former vice president has said his approach to dealing with the North would include working to repair relations between South Korea and Japan to better combat any provocations, while also heaping “enormous pressure” on China “because it’s also in their interest” to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.
Analysts say the most likely scenario to unfold under a Biden administration would almost certainly resemble the approaches taken by Obama and President George W. Bush.
“Biden, like Obama and Bush before him, will reach out for some kind of deal; it will fail due to North Korean flim-flam; Biden will then fall back on local alliance relationships to manage North Korea,” Robert Kelly, a professor and North Korea expert at Pusan National University, wrote in an analysis Sunday.
“It is easy to imagine U.S. policy simply snapping back to what it was pre-Trump,” he wrote.
While this would effectively be a return to Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” one bright spot would be a renewed focus on Seoul’s ties with Tokyo over the North, and implicitly, how that could help them resolve their long-simmering bilateral dispute.
This year, the South Korea-Japan relationship continued its tumble to its lowest point in years over festering historical and economic disputes, including a court case involving Nippon Steel assets that were seized and earmarked for liquidation to compensate wartime laborers. This came after Seoul’s decision last year to scrap a key intelligence-sharing pact and an 11th-hour reversal of that move.
Frank Jannuzi, a former State Department official who now serves as president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said that Biden has a strong track record of working closely with South Korea and Japan on North Korean and related issues, placing “a high priority on avoiding gaps” in the three-way relationship.
“His senior adviser, Tony Blinken, helped lead a trilateral coordination mechanism on DPRK policy, consulting closely with Japan and the ROK,” Jannuzi said, using the acronyms for the formal names of North and South Korea. “I expect that that trilateral coordination mechanism would return and be strengthened if Biden becomes president.”
Ultimately, however, the bandwidth allotted to much of Biden’s plans for Northeast Asia will likely be dependent on how the coronavirus pandemic plays out.
“Biden’s top priority is going to be trying to resuscitate the U.S. economy, trying to restore as much American leadership, American primacy as he possibly can,” said Russel. “Those are tall orders and to try to address the havoc wreaked by the uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19, you’ve got a lot more to worry about than just China.”
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