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2020 signifies a year of potential change for U.S. domestic and foreign politics, either putting an end to the Trump administration or allowing it to continue its influence over the world. Research by the academic think-tank Pew Research Centre shows that, while views of the U.S. seem favourable across 33 countries, views on the Trump administration are less promising.
Different charts gathering 2019 data, in fact, show studies that demonstrate confidence in Trump is at an overall low, on a global level. A world map (Figure 1) below visually represents the lack of support of the U.S. from the world’s most powerful and developed economies – never surpassing 40% in overall confidence levels. West Europe, Canada, Russia, Australia, South Africa, and Far East Asia, for instance, seem to demonstrate lack of trust towards Donald J. Trump’s figure. Being some of the longest lasting allies of the U.S., it is unusual to see this data. Interestingly, Kenya, Israel, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe appear more favourable of his presidency.
What is important to point out, however, is that perceptions of government and the U.S. as a whole completely differ.
This means that, while foreign countries may have low confidence in the Trump administration, their view of the U.S. remains relatively positive. As shown by the chart to the left (Figure 2), Trump’s election in 2016 contributed to a downfall of satisfaction across 24 countries. In 2017, data shows that only 23% of those surveyed in these 24 countries had confidence in Trump as the President of the United States.
In two years, this value grew by only 8%, which demonstrates that public opinion on Trump can overall be considered negative compared to the 74% of support that former President Obama was benefiting from in 2016. In contrast, while the perspective of America as a whole might have worsened suddenly after the 2016 elections, data remained overall consistent, despite fluctuations between 49% and 53%.
Considering the world’s economic system is unilateral, in the sense that the most important institutions, the IMF, WTO, and UN, (as well as other trading dynamics) occurring daily around the globe are essentially a product of the U.S. economy, this data is worrying.
Historically, countries sensing a disrupting energy coming from the U.S. system of governance have easily turned to emerging powers in past decades. Hence, the focus by experts on the “rise” of China. Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, China has long been the recipient of foreign expertise wishing to make a profit out of cheap production in developing countries. China, which on its side has a legacy of being self-reliant, twisted this phenomenon to its advantage and enriching itself. With the PRC (People’s Republic of China) rising as a powerful economy, the global system is starting to shift towards multilateralism. Figures such as Trump are strong opponents of this view and would prefer the U.S. maintain its pole position. Below we explore what Biden’s approach to foreign policy could imply for U.S.-China competitiveness.
THE POTENTIAL BIDEN SHIFT
After four years, concluding the first term of President Trump, Biden really could become the next President of the United States. There are, of course, multiple factors that could determine this political change. These mainly express democrats’ concerns over Trump’s rule. 2020 was a particular year that emphasised these worries, for example, the under-representation of ethnic groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter movements and Anti-Asian sentiment sparked amid the COVID-19 pandemic), the ambiguous Twitter-politics often used as a means to express Trump’s personal views on political matters rather than the view of the U.S. central government, and also the isolation and anti-diplomatic attitude of the U.S. against emerging powers that it should instead engage in further communication with (e.g. U.S.-China trade war, North Korea antagonism).
While Trump has certainly contributed to the American domestic economy during these years, prioritizing local over foreign workers, and creating opportunities for the U.S. to foster economic development with a business-centric approach (e.g. Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines), it is true that the Democrat opposition has strengthened significantly. Candidate Joe Biden, former Vice-President during the Obama administration, is possibly gaining votes due to his affiliation to the former president. During his political campaign, Biden’s strategy has sought to repair the wounds left by Trump, claiming his election would value immigration and ethnic issues for long upsetting the American population. Among the strategies to gain as many votes as possible, could potentially be his choice of Kamala Harris as his Vice-President, perhaps wishing to demonstrate that more ethnic groups are being heard directly inside the oval office and that gender balance should exist at the highest levels of the political system.
WHAT ARE TEAM BIDEN’S INTENTIONS IN FOREIGN POLICY?
Due to the historical moment in which the world finds itself, in the midst of a global pandemic, finding a vaccine will be a top priority. Other than the medical side, however, there is also a politico-diplomatic side to this issue because the U.S. finds, once again, both Russia and China are the biggest economies working to find the vaccine against COVID-19. While one would hope these all worked together to do so, the reality of foreign politics still sees these countries compete amid a global emergency. From either side, there is often mistrust in sharing information with foreign medical teams and the political administration, which will inevitably slow the production down.
Aside from Covid-19, Biden’s team has listed a few focuses regarding the foreign policy it would like to pursue if elected. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the main points include:
- North Korea
Biden supports diplomacy with Pyongyang, however, believes that Kim Jong-Un has not made concrete plans to eliminate the nuclear program, which he deems a major threat to the world. He also believes that Trump has not utilised his resources to pressure Kim further into making changes and that negotiations with China and an emboldened relationship might be the solution to this.
- Middle East
Calling himself a Zionist, Biden is likely to continue strong cooperation with Israel. However, this may bring further discontent among countries supporting the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, Biden opposes Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal which has failed to keep Tehran from developing its nuclear program, and is also worried about keeping weapons in Turkey under the unpredictable administration of Erdogan. Decisions on Syria are believed to be a big conundrum for the U.S.
Regarding Russia, Biden has expressed wishes that Putin’s government would be further investigated due to suspicious money laundering within Western financial institutions. He believes the Russian government is anti-democratic and, like Trump, he would increase military presence in Ukraine and Eastern Europe via NATO. He is yet to reveal his stance on events concerning Belarus.
- Venezuela and Latin America
Biden believes that helping Venezuela solve the ongoing domestic economic crisis through economic stimulus would avoid creating millions of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. He points to his focus on Latin America as former vice president, saying that diplomatic ties with Cuba must be reopened, continuing the Obama trade agreements of over US$750 million with Colombia and Panama.
Biden agrees with Trump’s tough approach on China, however, he has been thoroughly criticized for instead being too soft on Beijing. Below, there is an in-depth analysis of the legacy of Biden in dealing with China, from Vice President to now.
CHINA IN BIDEN’S AMERICA
When Joe Biden was Vice President for the Obama administration, diplomatic decision-making in Asia undeniably challenged Beijing. The 2013 Pivot-to-Asia strategy remains in history one of the top foreign policies angering China. Later, this was renamed the “Rebalancing” policy, as Washington felt the need to specify that this was not a military strategy aiming to encircle China. Beijing, on the other hand, saw this move as an attempt of the U.S. (world hegemon) to constrain the growing military and economic capabilities of China (emerging power).
Below, a video by VOA (U.S.-based) explains the tensions developing between the U.S. and China, particularly in the South and the East-China Sea, which remain areas of conflict between China and other Asian countries. Back in 2013, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s rise to power, Biden supported Obama’s decision to be tough on China. According to his team’s plans, therefore, one would expect Biden to continue to challenge China for the duration of his presidency, if elected.
However, American newspapers supporting different political factions have heavily criticised this plan, due to the effective personal relations he is said to hold with China. For instance, journalistic sources have condemned the investment decisions made by his son in the region, which would imply Biden is somewhat involved in the Chinese economy. Lately, in fact, Biden’s campaigns have expressed his desire to intensify collaboration with China, sparking public dissent. China seems more in favour of initiating agreements with Biden rather than continuing relations with Trump, however, this depends on the stance Biden will choose to stand by on the issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Beijing is a very sensible government, that will not easily reach foreign agreements on issues it believes to be of domestic nature. Below on the left, a propaganda video of team Trump, of biased nature, denounces Biden’s soft approach on China. On the right, the perspective of Chinese-based media, the South China Morning Post.
WHAT ABOUT ASEAN?
The 2013 Pivot-to-Asia was originally created to send aid to South-Eastern Asian states militarily by deploying U.S. troops and naval equipment in the region. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) made up of Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia were therefore protected in this sense. However, the presence of the U.S. in the region has been angering Beijing ever since. In fact, starting as a regional issue, the South China Sea has become a global one, involving other superpowers that are indirectly involved in trade deals or have other interests in the Sea. The South China Sea remains one of the most complex “cold” conflicts of the modern era, as it encompasses strategic straits and ports that contribute to communication and the transport of goods and services worldwide.
According to EurAsian Times, China has attempted to maintain stable bilateral relations with ASEAN countries, calling the most recent meeting in early August 2020 to discuss the involvement of non-regional powers in issues that, according to Beijing, are purely East Asian or Southeast Asian. “Asia is for the Asians” is the slogan repeated frequently by Xi Jinping, valuing ASEAN countries as a strategic and developing bloc. Ironically, the Americans might have indeed listened to these words, involving India and Japan in the South China Sea issue as well. It is no wonder a world power like the U.S. would feel attacked by a coalition of states arising before its eyes, and this has become a reality during Trump’s U.S.-China trade war, which risked turning pro-American countries against China.
Facing pressured from both sides, ASEAN officials have firmly stated they will not choose China or the U.S. In fact, they value maintaining good relationships with both because “what we mustn’t overlook is that ASEAN is not without its own leverage … as an economic bloc, as a strategic bloc, and as a region that both the US and China would like to get along well with,” according to Singaporean Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam. According to the South China Morning Post, ASEAN is open to any newly elected U.S. presidential candidate, saying they will respect any options. On the other hand, President Trump believes that “If I don’t win the election, China will own the United States. You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.” This implies that, according to the current President, the U.S. and other countries in Asia, would no longer be as free or as protected if Biden wins and sides with China. These speculations, however, are too far-fetched to be considered true.
Only time will be able to tell the next steps of American foreign policy, regardless of who wins the elections. In the case of Biden being victorious, then it will be interesting to observe how he will “deal with China“, and how the dynamics between the U.S., China, and ASEAN will change.