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What Asia wants from the Biden Administration

What Asia is looking for from the new Biden administration is what it has always wanted, but only rarely received, from the United States: its eyes, ears, brains and, on occasion, brawn – in that order. Any generalization is fraught, given that there are more cultural and political differences across the region, and the broader Indo-Pacific, than practically anywhere else on earth. But there would be more agreement than not on Washington’s need to see Asia for what it is; to listen carefully to all the regional players; to craft policy intelligently; and to use military force judiciously.

Eyes. The first of these needs is clarity of vision: for Washington to see the region, its power relativities, and its individual country dynamics for what they are, not what it would like them to be. That must begin with insight into America’s own relative place in the regional order. Its unipolar moment is over, and continued use of the ‘p’ words – primacy, predominance, pre-eminence – helps relationships neither with adversaries nor allies.

While inconceivable for the Trump administration to accept, this is well understood by Biden’s foreign policy team. But it has been rarely articulated by any of them, still inhibited as they are by domestic politics – just as was President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in February 2016 with his tin-eared assertion, in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that “China does not set the rules in that region, we do.” The obvious reality is that China is becoming ever more powerful both absolutely and relatively, ever less willing to be a global and regional rule-taker rather than active rule-maker, and ever more assertive regionally.

But China is not the Soviet Union: it won’t implode any time soon; its preoccupations are still overwhelmingly internal; its Communist Party leadership has no evident ambition for global or regional ideological dominance or taste for outright territorial conquest (Taiwan possibly excepted); and it is joined at the wallet – to everyone’s mutual benefit – with not only the US but a host of regional economies. Confrontation is not inevitable, and coexistence is perfectly possible.

Clear sight is also needed about the risk to US and regional security posed by North Korea. All the objective evidence is that the North’s leadership is obsessed with regime survival, does not trust the West to guarantee it and believes that nuclear weapons are a critical deterrent to external attack. But the North also understands perfectly well that any aggressive use of its weapons would be catastrophic: to be homicidal would be suicidal. Those realities give hope, and scope, for intelligent diplomacy, particularly if Washington adds ears to its eyes and listens more carefully to what the Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul is telling it about the need to accompany summit showmanship with serious step-by-step trust and confidence building.

The Biden administration’s eyes also need to be clear about the limited traction in Asia of democratic, civil and political rights values – universal, not just Western, though these of course are under the UN Human Rights Declaration and associated International Covenants. Authoritarian and illiberal governments are currently less the exception than the rule across the region, and there is little taste for calling out any but the most extreme violations, and often not even those. To recognize this reality does not mean accepting it, but it does mean crafting response strategies that are more likely than not to be practically effective: on which more below.

Ears. The first thing anyone who seriously listens to key regional players will hear is that no-one, but no-one, wants to choose between the US and China. No state can afford to have its economy held ransom to a Washington loyalty test, and none can afford to have its security held ransom to a Beijing loyalty test.

Throughout the region China is fast overtaking the US both as the major source of investment and as the final market for exports. In country after country, the degree of economic dependence on China is extraordinarily large – in my own, Australia’s case, well over a third of our exports – and the prospects for diversification, except at the margin and over a very long time, is minimal.

At the same time, it is acknowledged throughout the region – not only by America’s immediate allies and partners, albeit more grudgingly in the case of some others – that America’s commitment since the end of the Second World War to a liberal, open rules-based economic order has contributed mightily to the region’s current prosperity, and that a post-Trump restoration of US leadership in meeting challenges to that order is in everyone’s interests. Opinion is more divided on the indispensability of US military might in maintaining a stable peace and security environment – mistakes like Vietnam are hard to forget. But certainly for countries like my own, and Japan, South Korea, most nations of Southeast Asia, and increasingly for India, the case for the US as a stabilizer in the past, and as an important counterweight to a possibly over-reaching China in the future, is unarguable.

The message for the Biden administration in all of this is that, whatever the domestic pressures it might feel to find comfort in a shared adversary, it will find far more comfort trying to find cooperative solutions to common problems than in forcing other countries to make win-lose choices. The overwhelming sentiment in the region is to not see the US-China relationship as a zero-sum game.

If it listens closely to the region, the Biden administration will also hear that one of the most useful steps it could take in restoring US credibility and influence – and one that plays directly into its own multilateral instincts – would be to play a leading role in reforming outdated governance structures and generally strengthening the capacity of the global institutions on which the region’s prosperity will continue to heavily depend, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the International Energy Agency.

An important opportunity will arise to advance that agenda when Indonesia – which has long been a vocal proponent of WTO and IMF reform in particular – assumes the chairmanship of the G20 in 2022. If that leads America to listen more closely to Southeast Asian voices, and not just the Northeast Asian interests that have so overwhelmingly preoccupied it since the Vietnam War, that is also devoutly to be wished.

Brains. Intelligent policymaking depends significantly on good eyes and ears, but also sound judgment – all conspicuously lacking in the Trump years. This creates multiple opportunities for the Biden administration to distinguish itself, in Asia as elsewhere. Opinions will differ as to priorities, but ranking highest for many, if not most, in the region will be avoiding a catastrophic deterioration in relations with China; seriously addressing existential risks facing the planet; and – although no doubt appealing more to the region’s peoples than many of its governments – ensuring greater respect for universal civil and political rights.

Navigating a modus vivendi with China so as not to slide further into a confrontational cold war, with the slim but not impossible risk this entails of it becoming catastrophically hot, will be Washington’s greatest challenge. The beginning of wisdom here, mapped among others by former Australian prime minister and now Asia Society president Kevin Rudd, is to adopt a multidimensional approach, recognizing that certain areas of disagreement will remain intractable for the foreseeable future, defying easy solutions and requiring extremely careful management, but that collaborative progress is possible on a number of other issues where there is actual or potential common ground.

The most intractable issues include the South and East China Seas, US alliances in Asia, Chinese military modernization, and above all Taiwan, where it is critical, as Jessica Mathews has recently put it, to maintain the “delicate balance of ambiguities” of the One China policy and not see it, as did Trump and Pompeo, as a game of chicken. Another group of issues – the trade and investment concerns on which China manifestly needs to move, including intellectual property and technology transfer, investment rules, and excessive subsidization of state-owned enterprises – remain very difficult, but should not be impossibly intractable if tensions ease on other fronts.

The best prospects for such tension easing, where collaborative cooperation really should be possible if the US adopts a more measured approach and China responds in kind, are global and regional public goods issues like counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, piracy, international crime and, above all, the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it – climate change, pandemics and nuclear war. In all of these areas China has in fact already played a more interested, constructive and cooperative role in the UN and elsewhere, than has been generally recognized, and is well aware of the “soft power” returns in being seen to do more.

The potential for cooperation on climate change and future pandemics has been amply mapped by others, but it is worth noting how much more could be done, with possible Chinese support, on nuclear arms control. While in recent times its mood has been hardening, as has been its nuclear arsenal, China in the past has been a very reluctant starter in the nuclear arms race, adopting a clear policy of minimum deterrence and doctrinal commitment to No First Use. If that stance is to continue, however, and China is to help quell rather than compound fears of a nuclear nightmare, the primary impetus is going to have to come from the US, on which more below.

Sound policy judgment will certainly be needed from the Biden administration if it is to advance the cause of universal civil and political rights protection, an issue of great concern to innumerable people in the region if not – obviously – to many of their governments. In applying the levers of sanctions, embargoes, isolation, naming-and-shaming, and jawboning, the US has potentially more clout than most, not least because of the financial muscle exercisable with the dollar’s continued status as the world’s favored reserve currency. But those levers need to be applied with caution.

The basic rule for any country wanting to make a positive human rights difference in another has three elements. Do that which is likely to be productive for those one is trying to help – ethnic minorities under siege, detained dissidents, prisoners on death row and the like. Do not shirk from doing that which is manifestly unproductive, but at least valuable in making the point in question, and encouraging others internationally to build like pressure. But avoid at all costs doing that which is counterproductive, making things worse for those one wants to assist – which is very often the case when a public megaphone is employed rather than private voices, not least in those many Asian cultures where maintaining face is at a premium.

The dilemma for the US – and for many other countries as well, including my own – is that things are not always so straightforward. Governments may be under significant moral pressure, including from domestic constituencies, to speak out strongly or act tough against human rights violations in ways that may or may not be productive for the victims but that carry a downside in terms of national geopolitical or economic interests. Thus the Biden administration’s reluctance to tap Saudi Arabia with more than a feather over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, or to withdraw the utterly unconscionable sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on International Criminal Court personnel for pursuing investigations of Israel over alleged violations in Palestine and the US itself over Afghanistan. There will always be plenty of voices supporting such exercises in realpolitik, like Richard Haass in Project Syndicate recently: “Foreign policy is not about virtue signaling; it is about advancing interests.”

But what the Biden administration needs to recognize, as do others who are wrestling with similar dilemmas, is that there is a reputational price to pay for perceived hypocrisy or double standards: asking others to do what one says but ignore what one does. While every country, of course, has no choice but to give primacy to its own national interests, there is a strong case, here as elsewhere, for seeing those interests in broader terms than just the familiar duo of geopolitics and economics. Every country has a third national interest – in being and being seen to be a good international citizen willing to engage in cooperative efforts to resolve global and regional public goods problems, even when there is no immediate or direct return benefit for national security or prosperity, and to stand up for universal human rights values even when there may be downside impact on other national interests. Soft power is real power, and the Biden administration should not want to be seen as presiding over its further erosion.

Partly in a human rights context, but also more broadly, if the Biden administration really wants to restore America’s international credibility and effectiveness, it also needs to think long and hard about its enthusiasm for an “alliance of democracies” as a weapon to advance its own interests and those of its allies and partners. Not only is there a justified degree of skepticism abroad about the quality of America’s own democracy, it is obviously the case that if the world’s public goods problems, including the big three existential ones, are ever going to even begin to be resolved, this cannot happen without the active participation of the major non-democracies.

Again, regionally, if there is to be serious messaging to China about potential overreach in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia more generally, Vietnam is a crucial player in that pushback. And yet another caveat for the realpolitik brigade: anyone investing hope in democratic alliance solidarity in support of members being picked off for retaliation by upset non-democracies need only look to Australia’s recent experience with China, where American farmers and winemakers, and New Zealand’s lobster fishermen, have shown themselves to be only too happy to fill the market gaps created by Beijing’s boycotts.

Brawn. Whatever other slides there may have been in recent times in America’s absolute and relative power, its military power remains immense, and it is of enormous importance to Asia that it be used judiciously. As already noted, the historical record – albeit with Vietnam the spectacular exception – overwhelmingly supports the stabilizing role that US military might has played over many decades, at least in East Asia if not the sub-continent, giving all the major players in the region, not least China, the confidence to get on with building their own economies without being caught up in hugely burdensome and destabilizing arms races. In particular, America’s military omnipresence has given China real pause in exercising any ambition to absorb Taiwan by force. Even now, with China’s rapidly growing air-sea denial capability in the Taiwan Strait and its surroundings giving rise to real doubt about America’s ability to win a localized conflict, there is very little doubt as to who would ultimately prevail in an all-out US-China war, although its costs would be almost unimaginably horrendous.

For the future, what Asia wants from the Biden administration is evidence that it is indeed thinking wisely and constructively about how its still unquestioned military firepower should be utilized. Nobody in the region would benefit from war, and nobody wants it. But so long as geopolitical tensions prevail, and military build-ups continue, the risks of stumbling into war through miscalculation, misadventure, or human or system error, remain high – and will become even more so if new classes of weaponry in space, cyberspace and (in the case of hypersonic delivery systems) ordinary airspace, continue to be developed without restriction.

The biggest risks of all – existential in scale not only for the region but the planet – involve nuclear weapons. Given what we now know about multiple narrow escapes during the Cold Wars, the level of sophistication of command and control systems in some of the newer nuclear-armed states, the increase in and modernization of nuclear weapons stockpiles throughout the region, the increasing insouciance with which some states – notably Russia – are now talking about using them, and the reality that all the painfully negotiated nuclear arms agreements of the past are dead, dying or on life support, it is not a matter of statesmanship or system integrity that has saved the world from a catastrophic nuclear exchange since 1945, but sheer dumb luck, and there is negligible prospect of that luck continuing indefinitely.

What both the region and the world now need from the Biden administration – because without American leadership nothing will happen – is not just for it to get back to the negotiating table with both North Korea and Iran, and to get serious again about advancing the non-proliferation agenda with which all the existing nuclear armed states feel comfortable. They need it to get serious, as President Obama at least tried to be, about actual nuclear disarmament – about which the nuclear armed states (and, it has to be acknowledged, most of the US allies and partners who think of themselves as sheltering under its umbrella) have simply never been serious at all.

Whatever may have been the utility of nuclear deterrence in the Cold War years, it is hard to argue now with the conclusions of those quintessential realists Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and the late George Shultz, in their famous series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007, that in current circumstances the risks of their continued possession by anyone far outweigh any conceivable security rewards. Getting to global zero won’t happen any time soon: verification and enforcement are game stoppers for the foreseeable future, even if the geopolitics becomes more accommodating. But serious steps in that direction are possible with the right will: de-alerting, reduced deployments, dramatically decreased weapons numbers, and doctrinal agreement on “no first use” – the “4 Ds” as they might be called – would be huge risk reduction measures. Washington can and should show the way on every one of them.

While there will be lingering anxiety on the part of many of America’s allies about the implications for their own security of reduced or non-reliance on nuclear weapons, and a belief in some quarters that Japan, and especially South Korea, will feel bound to acquire their own if that happens, those fears can and will be put at rest if the US makes clear, as it should be willing to do, its absolute willingness to deploy in their support, should they come under serious threat, its conventional capability – which will remain immense enough for the indefinitely foreseeable future to stop any potential adversary in its tracks.

Most of the region – although South Asia remains a troubling laggard – has been actively engaged over the last three decades in developing peace and security dialogue mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, and despite the hothouse atmosphere of recent times, there remains a strong preference for common and cooperative security-focused approaches – finding one’s security with others rather than against them – over confrontation. There is minimal likelihood (the highly emotional issue of Taiwan possibly excepted) of deliberate aggressive war being initiated by anyone. But defense planning always has to be based on the capability of potential adversaries, rather than known intent, and in that context there will be a strong case for a strong US military presence, defensive and conventional in character, to continue for the foreseeable future.

What nobody wants, in the US now or anywhere in the region, is a reversion to any kind of enthusiasm for past regime-change-focused military adventures. The use of military force in any context should be subject to multiple prudential criteria, including that it be likely to do more good than harm, and bombing for democracy is a lost and utterly misguided cause. That said, there are extreme cases – of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – where limited and wholly civilian-protection focused military interventions have been deemed permissible, although only as a last resort and with the endorsement of the UN Security Council, under the “Responsibility to Protect” principles unanimously agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2005.

Asian governments – always nervous about any interference in internal affairs – have been more reluctant than most to give active, effective support to these “R2P” principles. They are more comfortable talking about prevention than engaging in any kind of robust reaction. But terrible atrocity crime cases are an unhappily recurring reality in this region – think of Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar’s Rohingya and Chinese treatment of its Uyghur population, and this is a subject, as with human rights generally, where the Biden administration’s eyes and ears should be focused as much on Asia’s peoples as on those who govern them.

President Biden’s well-attested instincts for decency, moderation and cooperation will serve him well in restoring America’s lost soft power, and sensibly managing its still enormous hard power, and he has assembled around him a highly-capable team that is well known and respected in the region. While the domestic constraints and multiple other preoccupations it will face are well understood, hopes and expectations are high, throughout Asia and the Indo-Pacific, that the Biden administration will be a vast improvement over its immediate predecessor in all the dimensions this article has addressed.

Gareth Evans is Chair of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). He was previously Australia’s Foreign Minister (1988-96), President of the International Crisis Group (2000-09) and Chancellor of the Australian National University (2010-19).

This article was published in Global Asia in March 2021