US foreign policy set to return to normal.

The dam might finally have broken regarding Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the result of the Presidential election and Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20 next year.  After three weeks of increasingly ridiculous claims by his legal team, Trump has now agreed to the formal start of the transition process, clearing the way for the General Services Agency to start cooperating with the incoming Democrat administration.

This has happened not a minute too soon, with COVID-19 deaths surging and foreign policy directionless.  In one of his final acts, Trump left a virtual meeting of the G20 after a few minutes of boasting to play golf instead – and has continued the policy of doing nothing about the pandemic.  There is still two months of this to go, which assumes he has given up the struggle to remain in office.  It also assumes that he won’t rock the international apple cart with actions such as launching a military strike on Iran, something reportedly discussed with his military advisers.

Two WZ-10 attack helicopters attached to an army aviation brigade under the PLA 73rd Group Army fly in extremely-low altitude during a penetrating flight training exercise on November 11, 2020. ( by Li Shilong)

The new administration already looks like having a great deal of knowledge of government and international relations.  If confirmed by the Senate – and that’s a big if, barring the unlikely election of two Democrats in the January Georgia run off – the next Secretary of State will be Antony Blinken, an exceptionally well credentialled person with deep links to the foreign policy establishment and a close working relationship with Joe Biden stretching back for at least 20 years.

Partially educated in France, Blinken has previously worked both in the White House for the Clinton administration and also in support of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is likely to bring a steady and knowledgeable perspective to US foreign policy. Regarded as very much an internationalist – the opposite of Trump’s America First mentality – he has always favoured alliances and cooperative problem solving rather than unilateral action.  His first priority is likely to rebuild relations with Europe generally – and in particular France and Germany – which are currently at something of a low point.  He is unlikely to exhibit any fondness whatsoever for Russia – or rather the aggressive and expansionist policies currently favoured by the Kremlin.

It is too early to tell precisely what this will mean for East Asia, but we can make a few guesses.  The US might wish to re-join the Trans Pacific Partnership – or find some other way of greater economic integration with the region.  The US will return to the Paris climate change treaty – and might seek to take the lead in the global effort, a move boosted by placing John Kerry in charge of this area.  The US might attempt to reset the relationship with China – though to do so will require the cooperation of President Xi, which cannot be guaranteed.

One of the important and positive changes of the Trump administration was to strengthen US support for Taiwan without actually breaking from the One China policy.  This is continuing – not only with major arms sales, the latest being MQ-9B high tech armed drones – but also with relatively stealthy visits of senior military personnel to the island.  Given bipartisan support for this policy it seems likely to continue in the style that the more aggressively China behaves, the more vigorous will be the push back from Washington.

North Korea will continue to be a problem – indeed a problem so profound that no one will make progress until they accept that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons under foreseeable circumstances.  To believe otherwise is to waste everyone’s time.  The best that can be hoped for is a freeze on both the nuclear program and associated missile ballistic missile development.  If it is accepted that the North believes it needs these weapons for self-preservation it might be possible to move forward from there, offering sanctions relief in exchange for tangible measures.  Again, it takes two to tango and it will be up to the regime of Kim Jong-un to also make some key decisions about whether it wishes to cooperate or whether it will remain one of the smallest and most miserable economies in the world.

The Biden administration is likely to strengthen relations with South Korea – and in particular put a stop to the completely counter-productive Trump approach of demanding a great deal more money to leave US forces there.

As we have cautioned previously, until President Biden is sworn in there is still plenty that could destabilise Asia – everything from a North Korean provocation to an accidental encounter in the South China Sea between the navies of the US and China.  Hopefully everyone will hold their nerve and 2021 will see a less confrontational international environment.  If the tariff war between Beijing and Washington is scaled back and if the two nations can cooperate on combating COVID-19 rather than make accusations about each other that will be a good start.  Someone of the intelligence and experience of Antony Blinken combined with the reasonableness of Joe Biden might be able to make a start in that direction.

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