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Opinion

Putting out Trump's Asia dumpster fires starts at home

Region's leaders could not be happier at seeing an adult in the White House

| North America
Joe Biden must restore growth for all Americans, not just the 1%.   © Reuters

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Asia to Joe Biden: You had us at "hello."

This region is no pushover. But after four long, torturous years dealing with Donald Trump, the bar for the new U.S. president is remarkably low.

Biden will score points just by knowing the name of the leader on the phone, where he or she is on a map, and being even vaguely conversant with the bilateral issues of the day -- rather than the shakedown tactics of some low-rent mafia don wannabe.

I wish this were hyperbole. But Asian leaders generally could not be happier that a measured, experienced leader who is not a China-obsessed Twitter troll is on-site to address the dumpster fire Trump leaves behind.

Yet Biden's real Asia policy begins at home. Sure, Biden will call Yoshihide Suga to remind Japan it has a partner, not a bullying overlord, in the White House. He is sure to phone South Korea's Moon Jae-in to reboot relations between Washington and Seoul. Biden will be having many such smoothing-things-over chats around the region -- from Indonesia to India.

There will be outreach to China's Xi Jinping. Political constraints at home make it hard for Biden to undo Trump's trade war in short order. But expect Biden to lay the groundwork for a less abusive and counterproductive relationship with an economy that could top America's by 2028.

The best thing Biden can do for Asia, though, is halt the deterioration of the world's biggest power. That means, first and foremost, taming COVID-19. As China, South Korea and Taiwan have shown, beating the pandemic is a necessary precondition for economic recovery. Biden also should give vaccine diplomacy a try, offering affordable, no-strings-attached access to the developing world.

Biden will not run America as if it were a family business, Trump-style, like some modern-day Ferdinand Marcos. Biden must remind Asia that America has values. Out of the gate, he must get back in the business of championing transparency, labor and environmental standards, human rights and the sanctity of international institutions. Rather than coddle Kim Jong Un -- and exchange love letters -- Biden's team must work with Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing to curb North Korea.

Next, Biden must restore growth for all Americans, not just the 1%. Only then will the U.S. begin to export opportunity and demand again, not deflation risks. Trump's nonresponse to the coronavirus created a historically deep economic hole. His scheme to overturn the Nov. 3 election sent a terrible message. It took precedence over slowing a surge in poverty, devastating America's soft power.

The answer is going big with a package of direct payments to households, bailouts for financially-strained states and cities and aid for small businesses. And, just as important, building real economic muscle.

There is a common view that President Xi is ecstatic to see Trump leave office. Yes, Beijing loathed tariffs on nearly $400 billion of goods, bans on top companies and Twitter tirades. But Xi ran circles around Trump. Rather than submit to a wholesale shift in Sino-U.S. dynamics, Beijing repeatedly outmaneuvered the "deal artist" by purchasing another handful of soybeans.

China used Trumpian distraction to great effect. As an anti-science White House made coal great again, China invested trillions in dominating the globe by 2025. While Trump dabbled in 1980s-style trickle-down gimmicks, Beijing went all-in on aerospace, artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology, digital currencies, electric vehicles, fifth-generation -- or 5G -- technology advancements, renewable energy, robots, semiconductors and tech unicorns.

Biden must do what trade wars and tax cuts cannot: rekindle innovation; increase productivity and competitiveness; rebuild crumbling infrastructure; recalibrate education and training; refocus Silicon Valley on disruption, not just selling ads; and limbering up for the big race against China.

The immediate to-do list is obvious: reenter the Paris climate accord; step back into the Iran nuclear deal; return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and work to grow its membership to influence Beijing's behavior.

One of the highlights of Xi's reign was that January 2017 day when Trump pulled out of TPP. Leaving the 12-country pact created a void Xi jumped into with the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. RCEP is the biggest trade deal in history, linking the fortunes of 3 billion people pivoting toward middle-class status directly to China right at the center.

Donald Trump signs an executive order on U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Jan. 23, 2017: one of the highlights of Xi's reign.   © Reuters

Biden should lobby South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and others to join TPP too. And Taiwan. Sure, Xi's China would object, but what better way to reward Taipei's success as a democracy? Team Trump extending olive branches to Taipei was about trolling Xi. Biden must make it about 23 million Taiwanese with little interest in suffering Hong Kong's fate.

There is another way success in Asia starts at home: repairing a national balance sheet in disarray. Trump leaves behind a debt burden racing toward $28 trillion and nearly 25 million COVID-19 infections. Asian central banks are sitting on more than $3.5 trillion of U.S. government debt. All this is making the dollar, the linchpin of world finance, shaky.

A more stable dollar -- and a vibrant U.S. economy -- could give Prime Minister Suga's political prospects a boost. A Suga-Biden summit in short order -- even just a virtual one -- would mark a fresh start with Washington's key ally in Asia. Devising a smarter, more collaborative approach to China, North Korea and COVID-19 could give Suga's flailing government a serious pick-me-up.

China's return to 2.3% growth in 2020 contrasts disastrously with America's near return to the 1930s. To change this trajectory and rehabilitate America's standing, Biden will rely on some well-placed "hello's" to Asian leaders missing the days when Washington had some adult leadership. His real job, though, is getting America's house in order -- one Biden's predecessor left ablaze -- so that Asia can thrive, too.

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