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Opinion

Donald Trump's enduring foreign policy legacy in Asia

Biden victory would not alter new political realities

| North America
Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Oct. 24: the scope for a significant shift looks limited.   © Getty Images

Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times and chairman of the Tate art galleries. His book "The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times" will be published next month.

After four years of megaphone diplomacy, Donald Trump's first term as U.S. president is drawing to a close. He has cut a polarizing figure on the international stage, but those looking for a substantial change of course from his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are likely to be disappointed. Trump's foreign policy legacy, especially in Asia, is likely to endure.

America First, Trump's transactional approach to dealing with allies and rivals alike, has enjoyed a longer shelf life than many critics predicted. This is particularly true regarding China, where Trump has shifted the terms of debate to the point where some observers refer to "a new Cold War."

The Cold War analogy is in fact somewhat exaggerated. Unlike the ideological struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which spawned proxy conflicts in Central America, southern Africa and Asia, America is not engaged in direct or indirect military conflict with China. More importantly, it ignores the two countries' economic interdependence, says Ian Bremmer, founder of Eurasia, the New York-based political consultancy.

"If you go to a Walmart, the goods you are going to find were made overwhelmingly in China," says Bremmer. "If you go to a mid-tier college campus in America, international students paying full tuition are overwhelmingly Chinese. If you look at the National Basketball Association, the management and players believe the future lies in Chinese fans buying merchandise, Chinese viewers watching, and even, increasingly, Chinese players. This is not the stuff of a Cold War."

Nevertheless, there are new political realities that will make it hard to turn the clock back. After successfully wooing blue-collar workers in the 2016 campaign, Trump rallied large sections of the business establishment under the America First banner. Many finally said in public what they had long said in private about Chinese protectionism, the lack of a level playing field, and the theft of intellectual property. The Democratic Party, worried about being outflanked, has become even more hard-line on China, not just on human rights but also on trade policy.

Biden, a longtime ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be his own man, but likely draw on seasoned professionals such as Susan Rice, a former national security adviser to President Obama; Tony Blinken, who worked for Presidents Clinton and Obama; and Michele Flournoy, tipped as a future U.S. defense secretary. Senior staff turnover would be greatly reduced in a Biden White House. Under Trump, it has been almost as high as in "The Apprentice," his TV reality show.

Donald Trump shouts his catch line from "The Apprentice" at Universal Studios Hollywood in March 2006: senior staff turnover has been almost as high as in his TV reality show.   © Reuters

The restoration of proven expertise would be matched by an attention to process under Biden, in contrast to President Trump, whose White House has resembled a medieval court. Biden would likely reinstate the high-level "strategic dialogue" between the U.S. and China, a useful safety valve during the Bush and Obama administrations. But the scope for a significant shift looks limited.

The race for technological supremacy between China and America will continue apace, whoever wins the election. President Xi's "Made in China" pledge to rapidly develop high tech industries by 2025 rattled the Americans. Together, they suggest Xi is in for the long haul. Hence the Trump administration's across-the-board campaign to slow down the Chinese advance: sanctions against Huawei Technologies, the fifth generation, or 5G, wireless technology powerhouse; bans on technology transfer; and pressure on allies in Europe and Asia to reduce their reliance on Chinese high technology.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was skeptical about Trump's personal diplomacy with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and wary of the hawks in Washington contemplating a first-strike at Pyongyang's nuclear program. Meantime, the North Korean missile capability and its nuclear ambitions remain intact and the strategic security threat to the region unresolved. But overall, Trump's more assertive approach toward China met with Tokyo's approval and there is little appetite for a return to Obama-style passivity.

In the near term, Biden shows scant interest in reversing Trump's withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, arguably his most significant diplomatic move in Asia. Democrats are also leery of trade liberalization, even in the area of services as opposed to manufacturing.

The U.S. retreat from its traditional role as leader of the advanced democracies in Europe and Asia would continue if Trump were to defy predictions and win a second term. The tariff wars would continue, military engagements spurned -- with the possible exception of Taiwan, where the U.S. position remains one of "strategic ambiguity" -- and NATO membership might even be open to question.

A Biden presidency would halt the retreat. It would reengage in some multilateral forums, notably the Paris accord on climate change and rejoining the World Health Organization. New groupings like the D-10, the democratic friends of the U.S. in Europe and Asia -- the current Group of Seven members plus South Korea, India and Australia -- might emerge. But Trump's legacy -- one where allies have been forced to think about a world where the U.S. no longer underwrites their security and China is the rival superpower-in-waiting -- is likely to remain largely intact.

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