Joe Biden has made it clear that once he occupies the Oval Office, he will neither immediately cancel the Phase One trade agreement struck by President Donald Trump and China almost a year ago, nor will he remove the 25% punitive tariff slapped on about half of China's exports by his predecessor.
"I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs. I'm not going to prejudice my options", he told The New York Times on 1 December.
Biden's remark came while Chinese scholars and journalists are calling upon the projected succeeding administration to axe Trump's tariffs war and toss out "the old-fashioned and selfish 'America First' doctrine", as Global Times, a Chinese newspaper under the auspices of the People's Daily, wrote on 22 November.
A New Round of US-China Trade Negotiations
"I don't think that the Biden administration will turn around completely on the Trump administration's policies toward China, since US China policy is a more bipartisan affair, and the core of US foreign policy tends to reflect a broader consensus within Congress and between Congress and the Executive Branch", says Jay Batongbacal, director at the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
In some sense, Trump's tough stance against the People's Republic reflected Washington's deep-seated concerns about the necessity to maintain technological leadership and economic influence amid China's rise, according to the scholar. He highlights that a "new pivot to Asia" is probably a misnomer, since the US' declared policy on Asia did not really change under Trump.
Nevertheless, it can't be ruled out that the Biden administration could try to "modify the trade policies of the Trump administration regarding China", deems Dr Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He cites the fact that newly designated Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been a critic of Trump’s trade war with China.
"It is likely that Biden may seek a new round of trade negotiations with Beijing", he suggests.
Biden's 'Asia Tsar' & Obama's 'Pivot to Asia'
Meanwhile, on 1 December, the Financial Times reported that Biden is considering appointing a White House "Asia Tsar" on the National Security Council.
There are several apparent candidates for the "Asia Tsar" role, according to Jaewoo Choo, professor of Chinese foreign policy at the Department of Chinese Studies at Kyung Hee University, who names Jung Park from the Brookings Institution, former Hillary Clinton aide Jake Sullivan, and Jeffrey Prescott, the executive director of National Security Action. The latter is Choo's bet, because he "has got plenty of White House experience and is very close to Biden".
"Regarding Biden’s plan to create this new position in the National Security Council, it certainly indicates the importance his administration attaches to Asia", admits Zhang Baohui. "However, this is not something new with him. After all, the Obama administration, which saw him as the vice president, undertook the strategic rebalancing or 'pivot to Asia' initiative".
Obama rolled out his "Pivot to Asia" strategy in 2011-2012 sending a unambiguous message that "America is going to play a leadership role in Asia for decades to come", as the Brookings Institution formulated it in 2011. The doctrine envisaged Washington's enhanced economic and military cooperation with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region as well as the increase in freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea in a bid to push back on the People's Republic's "nine-dash" maritime claims.
"The Obama-era pivot started with the military aspect; the redeployment of forces along our side of the Pacific Rim continued under Trump", explains Batongbacal. "What was stalled was the needed economic aspect, which for Asia was more important and directly translatable into political leadership and influence. The Biden administration will probably try to work on catching up with this component, which won't be easy because the centrepiece of the Obama pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership scuttled by Trump in his first month in office".
On 4 February 2016, the Obama administration inked the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade deal among all the major countries along the Pacific Rim with the exception of China. As The Wall Street Journal presumed in March 2019, the TPP passage "would have hamstrung, to some degree, many of China’s larger ambitions", including the Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025, and "possibly some of the expansion in the South China Sea". The deal, which was unilaterally torn apart by the Trump administration in January 2017, later morphed into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Three Traits of a Potential Biden Strategy
The new "pivot to Asia" will be different from what the Obama administration once pursued because it is likely to inherit the core strategies and thinking behind the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy, believes Jaewoo Choo, outlining three potential features of Biden's apparent Asia plan:
· First, there will be an emphasis on values and ideology as the foundation of his Asia policy.
· Second, the goal will be to build an intra-alliance network and enhance collaboration between the US allies, especially within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
· Third, the South China Sea dispute will remain high on Washington's agenda since China is not willing to accept the notion of the sea being international waters, something which the US demands.
Touching upon the Sino-American row over the South China Sea, the professor specifies that the matter is not about freedom of navigation but the People's Republic's access to the Pacific waters from their perspective.
"[China] has limited access to the Pacific, the Philippines Strait, Taiwan Strait, Korean Strait and Kurile Strait", he says. "However, the US wants to build a stronger control of these straits with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and Quad. The key to a peaceful progress and eventual solution to the dispute in the South China Sea lies with China. It is not because China's claimed sovereignty over the waters, but whether it will embrace international norms and institutions".
The observers agree that on the South China Sea issue, the current dynamics should be expected to continue.
"In fact, Trump’s South China Sea policy is no different from Obama’s, and Biden is likely to champion the same position and policies", Zhang Baohui concludes.