United States to take a more predictable role in Asia
While the new administration of President Joe Biden is still settling in – a process that will take several more months – the outlook for Asia is that U.S. policy will return the relative certainty of the pre-Trump era. Normally whoever has won the Presidential election can start work almost immediately to take over the reins of Government. However, Biden had to largely waste more than two months because the previous President refused to accept his loss – something he has still failed to do despite being compelled to leave the White House on January 20.
Because of the insurrection on January 6, the highest priority for new Defense Secretary retired Army General Lloyd Austin looks likely to be internal, namely investigating and countering right wing extremism in the military. As more information comes to light about the storming of the Capitol building, it seems that up to 20% of the rioters had military backgrounds – a disturbingly high ratio. As the first black person to be Defense Secretary, General Austin will be particularly sensitive to the task of getting to the bottom of the role of the Pentagon – if any – in slowing down the deployment of National Guard units on that chaotic day to restore order and save lives.
In the longer term, it seems unlikely that there will be any dramatic shifts in U.S. national security policies regarding Asia. On the key question of attitudes towards China’s aggression and expansion, there is bipartisan support for the tougher line now being taken. This will continue to see the U.S. pushing back on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea – though that particular horse bolted a decade ago. It is also likely that the new administration will continue to support Taiwan in the nuanced way of the last forty years that has as its bedrock the One China Policy, which in part is designed to discourage a declaration of independence by Taipei. Ending – or even significantly reducing – Trump’s anti-China trade policies will take time.
The problem of North Korea will not go away. Trump tried a direct approach with Kim Jong-un – to his credit, it was at least worth attempting something different – but that failed in its stated aim of getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. The Biden administration also needs to accept this reality and try to move on. It might be possible to negotiate a deal where the North curtails its activities and there might be some horse-trading at the margins – but clearly Kim Jong-un sees the possession of nuclear weapons as essential to his personal survival, as well as that of the regime.
As for regional alliances – in North Asia, both Japan and South Korea will continue to be important partners for the U.S., but now the irritation of expecting them to pay much more for the presence of American soldiers will be removed. Singapore will continue its effective and important balancing act of being a U.S. ally but also friend and honest broker with Beijing. Indo China and Indonesia look like being largely unaffected – though in Jakarta there might be some nervousness that traditionally U.S. Democrats have taken a harder line on human rights abuses than Republicans.
An interesting dynamic is Myanmar. Why the military overthrew the democratically re-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi is unclear, especially as she seems to have bent over backwards giving them whatever they wanted – particularly regarding their disgusting treatment of the Rohingya minority. Perhaps it is just a nostalgic power grab. In any case, the U.S. will need to respond with caution as well as firmness because anything too heavy handed will drive the generals closer to Beijing – so it might be a case of selective sanctions on the one hand and an array of diplomatic and commercial inducements on the other in exchange for the restoration of democracy.
Relations with India are also likely to remain positive – even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unlikely to personally impress many in the Biden administration with his strong man attitudes. The relatively recent Quad – the U.S.; Japan; India and Australia – will continue to grow in importance as a natural counterweight to the growth of China. South Korea would be a worthy addition to that group – but ongoing tensions with Japan might render that impossible.
Because of the 50-50 division between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate, defense spending is set to remain at its present level, though with scope for some small cuts. The progressive wing of the Democrats is in favour of heavier reductions in the 5%-10% range, but with the next midterm elections in 2022 already on the horizon that isn’t going to happen. Some savings could be made by retiring older platforms – but the various acquisition priorities are likely to remain in place, particularly with China’s military spending in a full gallop.
President Biden has made it clear that he wants to re-engage with the world – and he respects the work done by U.S. diplomats and intelligence agencies. He is a believer in human rights, but recognises that in a rapidly changing world Washington no longer has the ability to unilaterally change the attitude of increasingly powerful nations – particularly China. This does not bode well for either the Uyghurs or the citizens of Hong Kong in the short term – though overall a return to predictability is a welcome development.