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Interview

Biden will focus on solutions over bluster with China: Daniel Russel

Former diplomat says new administration will not be repeat of Obama years

Daniel Russel talks to reporters in South Korea as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in 2015.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- As a senior foreign policy official in the Obama administration, Daniel Russel attended every meeting that then-Vice President Joe Biden had with Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Russel, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute, had a front-seat view on how the president-elect works. He describes Biden as a "doer," more interested in progress than fiery rhetoric.

After a tumultuous four years under President Donald Trump, the U.S. will shift gears toward a more pragmatic approach in its relations with China under Biden, Russel told Nikkei.

A career diplomat, Russel served at the White House as National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs and later assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How do you envision the new administration's foreign policy and will it differ from that of former President Barack Obama's?

A: Clearly there is a very substantial continuity with the Obama administration, in terms of the people. There's also substantial continuity in terms of values, in terms of political philosophy. Biden is a strong believer in a rules-based international order. He's a strong believer in democracy. He's a strong believer in showing respect for America's democratic allies and partners.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, as National Security Senior Director for Asian Affairs Daniel Russel and other officials listen in the background. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

So, in that respect, we can see and expect similarities with the Obama approach. Also, when he takes office in 2021, it will be much like when Obama and Biden came into office in 2009. The U.S. economy is badly damaged and America's international reputation, frankly, is tarnished.

But all that said, it's clear to me that the Biden administration is not going to be a repeat of the Obama years, and one big part of the reason is simply because so much has changed in the world.

We now live in a fully digital environment that's increasingly shaped by technology, influenced by social media. We are in the midst of a struggle against COVID-19. We're facing an unprecedented level and pace of climate change.

But I think the biggest difference is the extent of the challenge from anti-democratic countries like Russia and China. China in particular, we see, is working to increase its influence in the region and in the international system, to coerce and intimidate, bully, smaller nations, to try to shape the institutions of global governance in a way that undermines democratic values, that undermines our freedoms.

China is acting in ways, today, that much more than in the Obama era, threaten the security, the economy, the integrity, of other countries, including Japan, including the United States. And that means that the foreign policy approach of the Obama-Biden years is going to need to be updated.

Q: Will the Biden administration be as tough on China as Trump was?

A: There will be elements of continuity from Trump to Biden, in part because the Trump administration identified a number of significant challenges to U.S. interests, but it didn't do much to deal with those challenges.

President Biden will be tough on China, there is no question about that. But, we need to unpack what that means, because the fact is that the Trump administration actually was not tough on China. It talked tough.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama in October 2015. (Photo courtesy of the White House Photo)

It made a lot of threats and denounced Beijing constantly. It tried to look tough. But we know that Donald Trump gave China a free pass on human rights. He sided with Xi Jinping against pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong. Donald Trump let Beijing crank up the pressure on Taiwan.

The Trump administration gave a lot of speeches. It did a lot of criticizing. And sure, he imposed trade tariffs, although he did that on Japan and other friends as well.

And the places where he took, where the Trump administration did take action against China, things like restrictions on Huawei, kicking out Chinese students and reporters -- they took steps but those steps didn't solve the problems, didn't change the behavior.

Importantly, none of those steps were taken in consultation with Tokyo. The Prime Minister of Japan found out about these decisions the same way, at the same time, that everybody else did, by looking at Twitter!

So, yes, we should expect President Biden to be firm, to be tough, to be principled, in dealing with China, but we should also expect him to be effective.

A big difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is that Donald Trump was a showman, a performer. Joe Biden is a statesman. He's a doer. And he is not going to take actions that will be ineffective or that will make the problems worse; he will take actions that aim at solving problems where possible, and where it's not possible to solve them, manage them, in a way that protects our interests and the interests of our friends and partners.

Biden believes deeply that by working together with allies, like Japan, that we can out-compete China. And he also believes that in areas where cooperation with China is necessary, and where cooperation with China serves our interests, like in combating the coronavirus, for example, or in dealing with climate change, that we can find ways to cooperate as well as to compete.

Q: What diplomatic moves do you expect from Biden?

A: Joe Biden will inherit a number of decisions. What to do about the extensive tariffs that have been levied on China. What to do about the faltering phase one trade deal. What to do about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and so on.

He will have to decide, in consultation with his advisers, on what's the right sequence, how much, how fast, to act on some of these issues. Things like the question of American participation in the TPP have a significant political, domestic-political, component to them. Those will all be factors that he's going to have to take into consideration.

But I wouldn't expect Joe Biden to be in a big hurry to take those sorts of actions. There are a number of things that he has publicly stated that he will do on Day One, and much of that is unwinding some of the problematic steps that the Trump administration has taken.

I think that his foreign policy isn't going to begin with China. It's not going to be exclusively oriented around China. It's going to be based on a realistic calculation of what will benefit the United States and what will benefit our partners, but also on a commitment to real diplomacy, where we take into account the interests and the views of our friends and partners.

In December 2013, Vice President Joe Biden holds a working dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the Tatami Mat dining room of the Prime Minister's Residence, in Tokyo. Members of the U.S. delegation are (from left), Deputy National Security Advisor Jeff Prescott, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Caroline Atkinson, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel.(Photo courtesy of the White House)

Q: You have accompanied Biden on many meetings with Asian leaders. How have you seen him handle these dialogues?

A: Joe Biden is a true believer in the value of alliances. He understands that an alliance belongs to both nations, not just to the United States, and therefore it needs to benefit both nations, not just the United States.

We should expect President Biden to begin by focusing on restoring America's alliances and its partnerships with like-minded democracies, to good health. Fellow democracies like Japan, which is also a major economic partner, a critical ally, with an essential role in the security of the Indo-Pacific and, therefore, to the United States.

In the four years of the Trump administration, one of the things that we've seen is Japan deepening and broadening its cooperation with other regional actors, like with ASEAN. Japan's relationship with Australia has grown immensely, and with India. So that's the kind of coordination among like-minded countries that I know that Joe Biden values, and so it is likely that his starting point, in terms of foreign policy, is going to include the resumption of active contribution, by the United States, to the collaborative efforts in the region. And what Japan has done forms an important part of that.

I attended, as a staff member, every meeting that Vice President Biden had with Xi Jinping or with Shinzo Abe.

I can, therefore, personally attest that the time that Joe Biden spent in China or talking to Chinese leaders was time dedicated to working on problems, to dealing directly with areas of friction and disagreement -- on human rights, on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, on the Senkakus, on the treatment of Chinese minorities, or the treatment of American and international businesspeople, the theft of intellectual property.

Most conversations are of a completely different character than the many, many, extensive meetings that he had with the Japanese leader, both in Tokyo and elsewhere.

U.S. Navy helicopters rendezvous off the coast of Hiroshima, Japan, following a strike coordination and reconnaissance training mission from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. Russel says the U.S. forces in Japan are a critical component of the stability in the Indo-Pacific "that is tied to America's own prosperity." (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

One of the times I went with him to Asia -- I think it was in 2013 -- was just after China had declared an air defense identification zone, an ADIZ, covering the Senkakus.

He flew first to Tokyo, to meet with Prime Minister Abe. And he walked out and told the press that the United States rejects the Chinese-claimed ADIZ. And then he flew to Beijing and he sat down with the Chinese leaders and he told them the same thing, straight to their face.

Q: How do you expect Biden to approach bilateral ties with Japan?

A: He believes, number one, that U.S. forces are in Japan in our shared interest. This is not merely a favor to Japan. It is a benefit to the United States. It's critical to U.S. interests because it is a critical component of the stability in the Indo-Pacific that is tied to America's own prosperity.

But secondly, this is not the first time that host-nation support has been renegotiated. This agreement comes up regularly for renewal. And Joe Biden, although he is a very tough negotiator -- and I know because I saw him engage in this issue in the past -- he is, nevertheless, a believer in negotiation, and negotiation is all about reaching compromise, reaching an agreement that both sides can live with, that both sides think is fair, and doing it in a way that leaves both sides committed to the partnership and not seething with resentment.

The areas in which U.S.-China cooperation make sense and offer value are areas where Japan also has an important stake in the outcome and where Japan has an important contribution to make, in getting a good outcome. So, I don't foresee that any degree of U.S.-China cooperation would come at Japan's expense. I think Japan will remain a central partner in any future project.

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