Superficially, many in Asia welcomed President Donald Trump’s tough talk about China, praising his administration’s emphasis on “strategic competition” with Beijing. But his policies—particularly on trade and investment—are widely viewed as having undercut that goal. President-elect Joe Biden now has an opportunity to set the stage for more systematic, institutionalized, and effective competition with Beijing.
Trump’s Approach: Long on Attitude, Short on Strategy
Despite Trump’s fighting words about competing with China, many Asian governments, broadly speaking, have viewed his administration’s policies as inconsistent with this goal. Some leaders, notably in Southeast Asia, abhor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stark “us or them” framing, preferring to view their region in balance-of-power rather than ideological terms. And America’s closest allies, especially Japan and Australia, loathe Trump’s trade policies, not least his decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
In the wake of American withdrawal, eleven countries completed the TPP without the United States—in effect, setting the region’s trade and investment standards without its largest economy and traditional standard setter. In a region whose business is business, that gap between American rhetoric and action has been a source of consternation to governments that view full-spectrum U.S. engagement as an essential balance to the rise of Chinese power.
Just take Southeast Asia, which the Trump administration viewed as ground zero of strategic competition with Beijing. In the last four weeks alone, Washington has picked trade fights with two strategically pivotal countries—Vietnam, which it is investigating for alleged currency manipulation, and Thailand, whose duty-free trade privileges the Trump administration has just revoked.
A Wanted Recalibration
Biden takes office against this backdrop.
Many in Asia hope his administration will maintain Trump’s tough line on China. But they also hope Washington will recalibrate, not least by returning to the TPP, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). And that, quite frankly, is incredibly unlikely: both major U.S. political parties are awash in trade skepticism, and it is plausible that the United States will never again do a major multilateral trade agreement.
This, in turn, will leave Washington outside the two agreements—the CPTPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—that will set trade and investment standards in Asia for a generation. And that absence will intensify persistent questions about whether the United States is fading as an economic rule setter even as it strengthens its role as a security player.
The Biden team faces three immediate challenges.
First, there is bipartisan consensus for strengthened security partnerships. But Trump muddied the waters by breaking with traditional Republicans through his implicit threats to curtail the U.S. presence and intensification of politically fraught burden-sharing pressures. Asian allies hope for quick consensus between the Biden administration and establishment Republicans on the future of America’s security posture.
Second, some fret that Biden will soften Trump’s toughened China policies, yet this seems unlikely amid bipartisan consensus for a harder edge toward Beijing. China has united against it a bipartisan cast of surprising political bedfellows in Washington—pushing together coalitions of politicians whose views diverge on nearly every other public policy issue. These have included Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joining hands on one congressional China initiative and Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren on another. The sweet spot for Biden is to pursue competition without confrontation, as one campaign adviser puts it. But Asian capitals will be alert to whether less confrontation amounts to an overcorrection. And there could be rancor around the margins as Biden weighs selectively rolling back Trump’s tariffs and reengages with Beijing on climate change. The latter effort may yield confrontation with some Republicans, who argue that former president Barack Obama’s administration softened on security goals in exchange for climate concessions from China.
Third, Asians see a United States beset by partisanship, bogged down by domestic debates on which there is little consensus. Woody Allen famously argued that “80 percent of success is showing up,” and this is precisely the lens through which many in Asia tend to judge American commitment. Asian governments will want administration officials to show up early and often, so visits and headline announcements in the first nine months will set a tone for Asia policy that could endure for the duration of Biden’s term.