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Can Joe Biden turn around Trump's China policy?

William Yang Taipei | Wesley Rahn
November 12, 2020

Countering China's geopolitical ambitions will be a tough challenge for the Biden administration. Defense experts say Beijing is unlikely to compromise on its interests, no matter who is in the White House.

Biden meets Xi Jinping in 2013
Image: Reuters

China will likely remain at the top of the US foreign policy agenda as US President-elect Joe Biden begins choosing prospective members of his administration and organizes the transition to the presidency. 

President Donald Trump took a decidedly hawkish stance on China. Economically, the Trump administration confronted Beijing unilaterally with tariffs, trade barriers and embargoes on key technologies.

To counter China's geopolitical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, the Trump administration has tried to build strategic consensus among regional allies under the slogan of a "shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific."

However, Trump's transactional style of foreign policy has also caused traditional US allies like Japan and South Korea to question Washington's commitment to defense treaties, as Trump would often complain about the cost of stationing US forces.

Read moreOpinion: Will Joe Biden go to war with China for Taiwan?

Biden reassures allies

On Thursday, Biden called Japan's recently appointed premier, Yoshihide Suga, and spoke about the "severe" security situation in the region. Biden reaffirmed a "deep commitment to the defense of Japan," according to his transition team.

"President-elect Biden said that he looks forward to strengthening the US-Japan alliance and working together on achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific," Suga told reporters.

Biden also spoke with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and said the bilateral alliance was the "lynchpin of the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region," Moon's spokesman said, adding that denuclearizing North Korea remains the top priority.

Last week, India's military hosted massive maritime exercises in the Bay of Bengal, with naval ships and aircraft from the US, Japan and Australia also participating. The four countries make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the "Quad," which began in 2007 as a joint US-Japanese dialogue in response to China's growing military ambition in the region.

Read moreJoe Biden reaches out to allies in the Asia-Pacific

Pivot to Asia 2.0?

There is bipartisan consensus in the United States that countering China in the Indo-Pacific is central to US foreign policy.

In 2015, the Obama administration's "rebalance to Asia," also known as the "pivot to Asia," recognized that Asia was becoming the "world's political and economic center of gravity."

The rebalance was a series of policy points designed to refocus US assets from the Middle East to Asia and strengthen alliances, deepen partnerships and streamline trade with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

However, the Obama administration was unable to extract the US from engagements and obligations in the Middle East and Europe.

Drew Thompson, a former US Defense Department director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, told DW this caused the US under Obama to lose its focus on Asia.

Read moreMearsheimer: 'The US won't tolerate China as peer competitor'

The TPP, a cornerstone of Obama's pivot to Asia, was scrapped by Trump within days of his inauguration. Trump said he could get a "better deal," which has yet to materialize.

As former vice president, Biden played a big role in pushing the pivot to Asia. 

"The real challenge for Biden will be how are they planning to do it differently in Asia this time," Thompson said. "Many of the same people were involved in the rebalance to Asia strategy. How is their rhetoric going to be backed up by actions?" he added.

Tony Blinken, deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration who worked on the pivot to Asia, is in the running for Biden's pick as secretary of state.

The Biden Doctrine for Asia?

However, many things have changed geopolitically since the Obama administration, and it remains to be seen where Biden will prioritize US foreign policy.

"If there are any changes to the US Indo-Pacific strategy, they are much more likely to be stylistic over substantive," said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation, adding that building alliances to counter China will likely remain a top objective.

However, Biden will also face challenges in building alliances, as US allies walk a tightrope of deference and defiance towards China.

"The dilemma of the alliance strategy is how do they incentivize or coerce allies into actually taking actions against China," said former defense official Thompson, adding that the Trump administration recognized that it would be difficult to develop an alliance-based strategy when it is not in allies' interest to confront China.

"The question is can Biden change that dynamic or not," said Thompson. "Maybe he can, but it will take some forceful diplomacy, pressure or coercion."

Read moreChina has the world's largest navy — what now for the US?

Russia and the Middle East also remain important foreign policy challenges for the US. Thompson said that the Biden administration needs to be clear about where the US will focus its foreign policy.

"It'll be a challenge for the future Biden administration to decide where they are willing to accept risks," Thompson said. "They might have to put more pressure on NATO allies to do more burden-sharing in Europe while focusing on building a stronger alliance network in Indo-Pacific to deal with China.

"I don't think having a strategy to align European allies against China is going to be more effective than aligning Southeast Asian allies against China," he added. 

Read moreTaiwan slams China over military incursions

China setting the agenda?

The incoming Biden administration will also be facing a more emboldened China, with the two previous administrations unable to get Beijing to budge or compromise its interests.

"The challenge the Biden administration will face is that China will set conditions for the cooperation between China and the US," Thompson said, adding Beijing's goal would be to isolate Taiwan and get the US to downgrade its regional military alliances. 

Read moreChina slams US military as 'destroyer of world peace'

"These conditions often undermine the alliance-based strategy and challenge U.S. interests in the region," said Thompson, adding that there isn't any good strategy to get China to do anything other than what is in its own interests. 

Returning to the strategy of balancing competition and cooperation, as was seen during the Obama era, will not be an effective way forward for the US, he added. 

"China is essentially going to design its own course and others will have to adapt."

To the point - Diplomacy post-Trump: Will Biden make the world a better place

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia