ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
The Asia-Pacific is wondering what a victory by Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden in the U.S. election on Nov. 3 would mean for American policy in the region after four years of President Donald Trump.   © Nikkei montage/Source photos by Getty Images
Asia Insight

What would a Biden presidency mean for Asia?

From tech and trade to Taiwan and North Korea, Trump's legacy will weigh heavily

ALEX FANG and MARRIAN ZHOU, Nikkei staff writers | North America

NEW YORK -- What would a President Biden mean for Asia? Will he be Obama 2.0, or Trump-lite? These are questions policymakers on both sides of the Pacific are asking ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

Should Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Barack Obama's vice president, convert his polling lead into victory, he will have to deal with President Donald Trump's seismic impact on the Asia-Pacific region the past four years.

The Trump administration has taken a confrontational stance against China on everything from trade, tech and the coronavirus pandemic to the South China Sea and Taiwan. Trump has also created tensions with Asian allies by threatening to reduce its troop footprint in Japan and South Korea, and building direct ties with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

A financial and technological decoupling with China is arguably underway, with Washington taking punitive measures on some of China's biggest tech players such as Huawei Technologies and TikTok. Biden would also inherit a Phase One trade deal -- on which Beijing is falling short of its purchasing promises -- and a trade relationship with Asia shaken up by Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On the campaign trail, Biden's stance on China has sounded closer to Trump than that of his old boss -- in one debate he called President Xi Jinping a "thug." Many analysts believe Trump's tough-on-China approach would last even under a Democratic president.

Nikkei Asia has taken a comprehensive look what a Biden presidency may look like for Asia. Here are our key takeaways:

A cargo container is hoisted at the Port of Oakland in California on Dec.13, 2019. U.S.-China relations have been upended by Trump's trade war.   © AP

Tech and China

The Biden campaign says the former vice president will lead America to "win the competition for the future against China."

Citing China's 30-fold surge in research and development spending from 1991 to 2016, Biden has pledged to invest heavily in new technologies under his "Buy American" economic agenda. The plan includes $300 billion for new technologies ranging from electric vehicles and lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence -- areas where China is rapidly gaining cachet.

His campaign has offered few specifics about measures he would take against China's tech companies, or even on whether he would keep Trump's hard-line sanctions on blacklisted entities such as Huawei. But his advisers have dropped clues.

Former diplomat Kurt Campbell and Biden adviser Jake Sullivan wrote in a 2019 Foreign Affairs op-ed that the U.S. needs to "safeguard its technological advantages in the face of China's intellectual property theft, targeted industrial policies and commingling of its economic and security sectors" -- all major sticking points in the U.S.-China trade standoff.

They advocated "enhanced restrictions on the flow of technology investment and trade in both directions" but that those should be pursued "selectively" -- on technologies critical to national security and human rights -- rather than "wholesale." But, they warned: "Overreach on technology restrictions could drive other countries toward China."

The U.S. establishment has taken a definitive turn against Chinese tech. A survey published this month by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies showed 71% of the U.S. thought leaders believed Huawei and other Chinese companies should be barred from participating in the U.S. 5G market. Over half said Washington should ban all exports to them.

Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS, said he expects a "mix of cooperation and pressure... but much greater coordination with" other governments under a Biden administration.

Biden may use some of the tactics the Trump administration has -- such as export controls and investment restrictions -- but implementation would be very different, Kennedy said.

"People need to understand that U.S. policy is going to be heavily affected by what China does," he said. "If China continues the policies that they are implementing now . . . with its new five-year plan and the 15-year [science and technology] plan, that strategy will induce a negative response from the United States and from others."

Trump displays his executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Jan. 23, 2017.   © UPI/Kyodo

Trade

Biden has said he wants to work with U.S. allies to put collective pressure on Beijing.

Trump's trade war with China has cost the global economy billions of dollars. Despite the Phase One deal, average U.S. tariffs on imports from China remain at 19.3%, more than six times higher than before the conflict began in 2018, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Average Chinese tariffs on imports from the U.S. are at 20.3%.

His administration has shunned working with allies and international agreements -- he has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Iran Nuclear Deal and threatened to leave the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization.

"I think a Biden administration would be more focused just on the China problem and work more closely with allies. [Biden] would be much more cautious in the use of tariffs," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations specializing in trade. "[But] it doesn't mean that the tariffs are likely to be lifted right away."

Biden has called Trump's Phase One deal with Beijing "empty," as it has yet to address unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft, according to the Biden campaign's website. He has pledged to work with U.S. allies to change China's behavior.

Most experts believe that U.S.-China competition is inevitable, but how a U.S. administration handles it is key to promote positive changes in the relationship.

Clayton Dube, director of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, said that a successful approach needs to be based on "a realistic framework" and that the U.S. should not "spend a lot of time on things that are impossible," such as demanding China change its government.

By working with trusted allies and showing Beijing collectively that "change ultimately benefits China and failure to change would harm China," the U.S. leadership would more likely get Beijing to agree to its terms, he said.

However, that doesn't mean that a Biden administration would immediately jump into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership -- the TPP's present 11-member version sans the U.S. -- if he wins the election.

Biden has been mostly quiet on TPP, which was championed by the Obama administration but has drawn fire from the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Instead he has argued for the need to invest domestically before taking on big trade deals.

Wendy Cutler, former deputy U.S. trade representative and vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that Biden will need to rebuild trust in Asia and demonstrate that the U.S. wants to engage in trade. She recommended that "interim sectoral deals" could build goodwill while "avoiding a lot of the sensitivities at home and abroad." Digital trade, medical products and environment and climate issues could be common ground for such deals.

Biden says that instead of reshoring everything, he wants to bring critical supply chains back to America, such as medical products, given the U.S.'s shortage of personal protective equipment during early stages of the pandemic. Cutler said that the U.S. could work with trusted allies in the CPTPP on the supply chain vulnerability issue.

The USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier transits the South China Sea at sunset on  Feb. 25, 2019.    © Reuters

South China Sea

In 2016, on a visit to Australia, Biden vowed that the U.S. would "ensure the sea lanes are secure, and the skies remain open."

"And I assure you, the United States is going nowhere," he said. "The United States is here in the Pacific to stay."

Throughout his campaign, Biden has emphasized the importance of strengthening Washington's alliances to restore American leadership. And in the case of the South China Sea, that means more engagement with Southeast Asian countries.

A Biden approach will focus not "only on the confrontational side of China policy" but also "how to address the local concerns of our allies and partners" and "try to put a floor under the U.S.-China rivalry," said Patrick Cronin, who chairs Asia-Pacific Security at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific under Obama, said Biden would take steps to avoid military escalation resulting from miscommunication.

But "the crux of the difference if Joe Biden were elected president would be that we would have a president who set the policy," said Russel, now with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He said that U.S. actions in the South China Sea in recent years -- such as freedom of navigation operations -- did not come from Trump, but from agencies such as the State Department and the Pentagon.

"We'd have a national security strategy... that includes not just sending warships," he said. "It will include diplomacy, engagement and participation with ASEAN and regional forums."

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan delivers a speech as she inaugurates an F-16 maintenance center at the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. in Taichung, central Taiwan on Aug. 28.   © AP

Taiwan

In 2001, Biden published an opinion piece in the Washington Post called "Not So Deft on Taiwan," demonstrating a more reserved approach to U.S. involvement in the region.

But in recent years, he has become tougher on China, criticizing Xi over Hong Kong protests and being the first Democratic presidential candidate to congratulate Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen on her election victory while urging stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties.

If Biden wins the presidency, the Trump administration's policy of selling arms to Taiwan could place him in a bind.

Obama "did not authorize new high performance equipment for Taiwan," said David Denoon, director of the Center on U.S.-China relations at New York University. "So it's possible that a Biden administration would be less accommodating in terms of supplying military equipment to Taiwan."

"On the other hand, there's very strong bipartisan support in the Congress for Taiwan, so he couldn't undercut Taiwan completely," he said.

Rafiq Dossani, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at Rand, said that the driver of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship "is not the U.S. but Taiwan's relations with China."

If relations between the political parties ruling Taiwan and the mainland decline further, "I expect Biden will be supportive of Taiwan and hard on China," said Dossani. "On the other hand, if that relationship stabilizes, there will be space to accommodate China's concerns."

North Korea unveils its largest ever intercontinental ballistic missile at a parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10.    © KCNA/Kyodo

North Korea and U.S. troops in Asia

Biden says he wants to work with allies -- most notably Japan, South Korea and Australia -- and others, including China, to pressure North Korea to denuclearize. He also wants to tighten arms control in the region with Russia's cooperation.

That puts him in contrast with Trump who, according to multiple reports as well as his ex-national security adviser John Bolton, has threatened to pull troops from Japan and South Korea -- Washington's longtime allies in Northeast Asia -- if they do not pay billions of dollars more in support.

"I think our relationship with South Korea is hurting," said the Hudson Institute's Cronin. "Biden will definitely be able to send signals early on, dispatching his secretary of state to the region can immediately set a different tone." He also sees Biden as more willing to "go in and use some political will to improve the relationship between [South] Korea and Japan."

Indeed, in a three-minute assessment of Trump's foreign policy at last week's town hall with ABC news, Biden brought up the fact that "you have Japan and South Korea at odds with one another," suggesting his administration will see the dynamic as one that needs mending.

Jennifer Lind, political science professor at Dartmouth College, sees the former vice president returning to earlier methods on Pyongyang.

"I expect that Biden will follow the long-standing U.S. approach on North Korea, which is a mix of deterrence and occasional attempts at diplomacy," Lind said.

Stay informed on the big issues of the day, from the technology supply chain wars to Asia's stake in the U.S. election. As part of Nikkei Asia's brand relaunch, we'll be holding a series of webinars through November. Learn more and register here.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends October 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more