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[Herald Interview] Biden will be tough on China, but likely to rescind tariffs, experts say
‘US will bolster Quad; raise diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia’
Published : Nov 12, 2020 - 13:49
Updated : Nov 12, 2020 - 13:49
US President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks about health care and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) at the theater serving as his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware on Tuesday. (Reuters-Yonhap)
US President-elect Joe Biden faces a number of crises at home, such as the coronavirus and its ensuing economic fallout, as well as a deep partisan divide and civil unrest. Such domestic imperatives cast doubts on how much Biden can do on the foreign policy front, especially in Asia.

But he will no doubt be tough on China, a major threat to the US economy, experts told The Korea Herald, and he will likely do so by building a united front of allies and partners, rather than raging a trade war like current President Donald Trump has done.

“While Biden is likely to continue to pressure China to reform its economy and level the playing field, he is not a fan of protectionism, and will work aggressively to rescind the tariffs because they are counterproductive, and end the trade war that Trump started,” Evan Resnick, assistant professor at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said in a phone interview.

While agreeing with US President Donald Trump that China is breaking international trade rules, unfairly subsidizing Chinese companies, discriminating against US firms and stealing their intellectual property, Biden said Trump’s broad tariffs are “erratic” and “self-defeating.”

The former US senator of 36 years instead called for targeted retaliation against China using existing trade laws and bringing “like-minded democracies” together.

“Both sides have strong interest in backing off from the self-injurious tariff war as their economies are tightly intertwined. Biden will seek to negotiate over remaining differences like opening the Chinese market to US goods, and intellectual property theft,” Resnick said.

Joseph Chin Yong Liow, research adviser at RSIS, also said the Biden administration will have to consider gradually easing tariffs on China.

“Since the World Trade Organization has recently ruled unfavorably against the US for its tariffs against China, a Biden administration that is seeking to restore a multilateral order will have to consider gradually easing tariffs against the Chinese so as to demonstrate Washington’s own commitments to international rules-based order,” Liow wrote in a recent op-ed in the Asan Forum, an online publication of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Biden has also vowed to take “stronger steps to prevent imports from forced labor” in Xinjiang, impose sanctions on China for its human rights violations in Tibet and Hong Kong.

“The Biden administration will likely strengthen multilateralism in order to better coordinate positions and policies towards China. I can see this being part of the effort to repair trans-Atlantic relations, which the Europeans would embrace,” Liow told The Korea Herald.

While Biden vows to reclaim America’s global leadership, the era of US primacy has passed, and faced with serious domestic problems, the US commitments in Asia could be eroded, according to the RSIS professor.

“The US needs to realize that the world has, in a way, moved on in the last four years. Because of the uncertainties and unpredictability of the Trump administration, other countries had started to explore alternative avenues in pursuit of national and regional interests. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is one example,” Liow said, referring to the Beijing-led trade agreement that 15 Asia Pacific countries plan to sign on Sunday.

“Although it was not directly tied to the Trump administration, the uncertainty of American commitment to regional trade led RCEP countries to work harder to expedite completion of the agreement.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 11 countries, never went into effect as Trump withdrew the US from it in 2017.

Observers say Biden would want the US to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which evolved from the TPP.

As for India, continuity in US policy is likely.

Like Trump, Biden sees India as a “like-minded partner” that shares the US goal of counterbalancing China in the region.

Biden is therefore expected to strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic forum among the US, India, Japan and Australia, analysts said.

“Biden will want to strengthen multilateral efforts to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy. This will take the form of deepening and broadening of existing initiatives, perhaps even institutionalizing some of them,” Liow said.

“The Quad is supposed to play a separate role from the Indo-Pacific concept, but under Biden, there might be more coherence.”

Under Trump, trade tensions with India escalated, but military ties with the South Asian country strengthened.

“The Biden administration may prefer to broaden and refashion (Trump’s) Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy so as to make it more palatable for friends and allies, many of whom are alarmed by the current narrative that barely veils its explicit targeting of China, to buy in,” Liow wrote.

“In terms of trade, at least, the Biden administration may consider a renegotiation of a regional trade deal in the Indo-Pacific that would respond to economic challenges posed by China and present alternatives to Chinese-led trade and economic efforts, yet also carefully calibrated to appease anti-trade wings in Washington.”

In Southeast Asia, the US is anticipated to return to a more standard form of foreign policy by filling some empty ambassadorial positions in the region and taking part in regional summitry.

“Southeast Asia is constantly worried that the US will turn its back on them. Trump ignored the region. Under Biden, more senior US leaders are expected to show up in regional summits such as the ASEAN Regional Forum,” Resnick said.

Liow also said Southeast Asia will see more higher-level visits from a Biden administration, although there will be the perennial obstacles such as human rights issues, such as Duterte’s war on drugs, issues in Rakhine state in Myanmar and protests in Thailand.

“On the South China Sea, I expect the Biden administration to continue the tempo of the Freedom of Navigation Operations. The current tempo was set by the Trump administration and it has been for the most part welcome by Southeast Asian countries,” he said.

Resnick said that although he thinks the US Freedom of Navigation Operations in South China Sea was overly confrontational and Biden is likely to be more vigorous in diplomacy, it would feel too politically costly for Biden to stop US warships from occasionally passing through the waters near areas of territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian countries.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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