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US elections 2020

Three ways Biden will immediately shift US policy on Asia

Strategy to replace brinkmanship on security; roadblocks on return to TPP

Analysts expect more strategic and measured thinking and actions by the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden than incumbent Donald Trump (Source photos by Reuters) 

MANILA/SINGAPORE/TOKYO -- U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to undertake a full reversal of Donald Trump's course on key issues that will affect Asia, analysts say.

But on security, trade, and climate change, Biden could take several executive actions not only to realign the U.S. with its commitments to allies and international pacts, but also to encourage cooperation with rivals like China. 

Biden sought to shore up ties with key Asian allies on Thursday, making his first calls with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Here are some immediate actions Biden could take during his first days in office to shift policy on three key issues:

Security

Bipartisan attitudes toward China have hardened over the past four years, one of the few pet issues for Trump where Democrats have found common ground with Republicans. Come January, the tone of Washington's engagement with China, at least, will change.

"That kind of brinkmanship and over-the-top statement [under Trump] will probably be gone. We will probably expect more strategic and measured thinking and actions by the Biden administration," said Jay Batongbacal, director at the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, at an online forum for journalists on Monday.

The U.S. will continue its freedom of navigation operations in contested waters, as well as military exercises with the Quad alliance revived by the Trump administration, said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales.

Biden is expected to appoint officials familiar in Asian capitals who can coordinate Washington's efforts with Southeast Asian states. Regional alliances like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will become more of a priority for Biden than for Trump, who skipped the ASEAN summit two years in a row.

"We may also see more U.S. appearances in ASEAN meetings. I think the approach of [the] Biden administration will be more of 'neo-institutionalism,' which is different from the realist approach of [the] Trump administration," said Trang Pham Ngoc Minh, a lecturer at the University of Vietnam.

A high-level U.S. presence will give ASEAN a better chance to air their concerns about being forced to take sides. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which have claims in the South China Sea, count China as a key trading partner and fear economic retribution.

Biden's policy on the Korean Peninsula is also likely to deliver immediate relief for South Korea and Japan, allies that have been pressured by Trump to pay more to keep U.S. troops in their countries.

Thayer said that under Biden, Washington's alliances with Tokyo and Seoul are expected to be "less antagonistic and more responsive."

"That means they can also coordinate better in the South China Sea for exercises, and I think we will see the South Korean navy playing a greater role," Thayer said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, walks with U.S. President Donald Trump in the garden during their summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.   © AP

Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un twice in high-level summits that failed to produce a firm commitment from Pyongyang to denuclearize.

"A Biden administration is more likely to pursue working-level talks with Pyongyang rather than summits and big deals," said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "Biden will demand more modest increases in military cost-sharing from Seoul without threatening to withdraw U.S. troops."

Trade

For Asia, the question is whether Biden will bring the U.S. back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. An uphill battle in Congress would likely exclude TPP from Biden's list of priorities.

The other 11 members signed the deal without the U.S in March 2018, taking effect that December.

A rejoining under the Biden administration would provide more opportunities for export-oriented economies like Japan and Singapore and could also encourage other nonmember nations to consider joining. Even so, potential renegotiations of terms and conditions in the TPP might be a risk for existing members.

But with Biden expected to prioritize domestic issues, such as mitigating the health crisis and securing jobs for Americans, a trade deal may not come quickly. "We will not negotiate any new trade deals before first investing in American competitiveness at home," stated the Democratic Party platform, approved in August.

"It's unlikely that we'll see any strong moves towards joining CPTPP in the near-term, for instance, particularly as Biden tries to avoid undermining his credibility among progressives, who tend to be more anti-trade," Nick Marro, the lead for global trade at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note on Monday.

China's tech industry could have some room to breathe as Biden may not scrutinize tech exports to China with as fine a comb as Trump. "I'd expect an easing of the tariffs, but a continuation of non-tariff measures and a particular focus on supply chain integrity and intellectual property," said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks on the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change at UN Headquarters in New York on November 4, 2016.   © AP

Climate change

During the campaign, Biden pledged a return to the Paris Agreement on climate change on his first day in office. But Asian capitals and business centers need not fear a carbon tariff.

Even if his party regains control of both houses of Congress, Biden will face opposition from industries such as autos in negotiating a tax measure that would affect domestic industries that rely on carbon-intensive imports.

"There's no reason why the Biden administration wouldn't go for the politically easy win-win policy areas first," said Mary Alice Haddad, professor of government and environmental studies at Wesleyan University.

For Biden, it could be as easy as rebuilding the Environmental Protection Agency and reinstating regulations rolled back by Trump.

"Unfortunately, we saw with Trump how relatively easy it is to change things in agencies when the president changes," Haddad said. "The upside is it should be very easy for Biden because a number of the changes that Trump made immediately got stalled in the courts."

Internationally, it will mean a combination of promoting U.S. green products abroad and exercising influence at multilateral development finance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank to prioritize green infrastructure projects.

This would open the door for the U.S. to cooperate with China's Belt and Road Initiative, a train that has shown no signs of slowing despite years of criticism by Washington. "It's a great win-win setup where the U.S. companies have the technology and the desire for larger markets, and the Chinese have the market and the demand," Haddad said.

That would require rebuilding the State Department, which has suffered the departure of senior diplomats over the last four years. Biden would need Congress not only to raise the budget for the diplomatic corps, but also to rescue the City and State Diplomacy Act. The bill, languishing in the House of Representatives since last year, would create a State Department office to promote engagement between U.S. governors and mayors and their international counterparts on matters like climate change.

Domestically, rebuilding the U.S. as a green economy has been part and parcel of Biden's coronavirus recovery plan.

"You can be pro-climate and pro-business. But you can't be pro-business and anti-climate," Haddad said. "As Biden has pointed out, it's not zero-sum."

Additional reporting from Kim Jaewon in Seoul.

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