East Asia

By Matt Slade

Home to some of the world’s preeminent economies, a handful of valuable U.S. allies, and rising challenges to the international system, East Asia is sure to dominate President Biden’s foreign policy while in office.

Ever since President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, this region has come to occupy greater importance as economic and security developments in the region threaten U.S. interests. Former President Donald Trump’s aggressive stance towards China and his significant engagement with North Korea throughout his term destabilized an already precarious region, but Biden is likely to continue many of the trends begun under his predecessor.

Washington is sure to keep close tabs on the region, especially with the Biden appointment of Kurt Campbell, the original architect of “Pivot to Asia” as the Indo-Pacific Coordinator on the National Security Council. First developed under the Trump Administration, the creation of the Indo-Pacific Coordinator position reveals the focus on the region from the Pentagon and White House. Between China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula, Biden has his work cut out for him in East Asia.

A Balancing Act: The Future of U.S.-China Relations

Under the Trump administration, the United States undertook an aggressive policy of confrontation with China. During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump berated China for unfair trading practices and what he perceived as predatory business deals.

Following his election, it became clear that President Trump meant to confront China and break with tradition in the U.S. stance on China towards sensitive issues like the status of Taiwan. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, President Trump spoke with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen on the phone, the first such call in over three decades and a move that set U.S.-China relations down a tumultuous path for the rest of Trump’s turn.

Shortly after, Trump ignited a trade war with China that lasted for much of his presidency and saw the raising of tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods. In 2018, a comprehensive strategy for the Indo-Pacific was put together by Washington, which put containing the rise of Beijing as a primary strategic goal. 2020 started off strong for Sino-American cooperation with the signing of the Phase One trade deal but quickly devolved back into antagonism with the outbreak of the coronavirus and President Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan Flu” or the “Chinese Virus” and blaming Chineses secrecy for the pandemic. 

The key issues between the United States and China ultimately boil down to the fact that China is quickly emerging as a challenger to the U.S.-led world system that has dominated since the end of the Second World War. Great Power conflict between the two countries is playing out both in East Asia and globally as China spreads its influence with huge infrastructure investments in Europe and Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s efforts to challenge the existing international system with the creation of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank reveal the broader challenges to U.S. leadership posed by Beijing. Looking more specifically, trade issues remain a constant source of irritation between China and the United States, as do accusations by Washington of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet.

China’s efforts in the South China Sea pose serious risks to trade and maritime access in the region and as always, the contested nature of Taiwan and the U.S.’s interest in protecting the island nation irritates Beijing. In mid-February, U.S carriers sailed through the South China Sea as part of Navy exercises that are meant to assert the right to free movement through waters that China claims. Taiwan held its first Washington talks under the Biden administration only days later, a signal of the strength of the Taiwanese-American partnership. 

China is one issue area where Biden is likely to stick with strategies put forth by the Trump Administration, though his methods will undoubtedly be more calculated and less bombastic. The risk to U.S. interests posed by China’s economic and military development has been acknowledged by the new American Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Already the Biden-nominated Blinken has spoken out against the “trampling” of democracy in Hong Kong and the “genocide” being committed in Xinjiang against the Muslim Uighurs. Militarily, Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin repeatedly engaged with the China issue during a hearing before the Armed Services Committee of the Senate. Austin labeled China a major “pacing threat” facing America and promised to keep “laser-like focus” on retaining the U.S. “competitive edge” against China’s increasingly powerful military.

Taking Blinken and Lloyd’s statements together, it’s clear that the White House has a clear vision of the need to confront China and sees it as the most significant challenger to the U.S and like-minded states. Under the Biden presidency, we should expect a confrontation with China, albeit a more calculated and cautious one. While Biden is unlikely to engage in any trade wars or Twitter spats over the issue, he is sure to make engagement with U.S allies in the region a priority and strengthen ties with partners who are also warily eyeing China.

Whether or not Biden will be able to check the ambitions of Beijing and Chinese President Xi Jinping during his term will ultimately depend on how effectively he is able to unify U.S allies around the globe to reject Chinese efforts to challenge the system and defeat this “challenger to the throne.”

Washington and Tokyo: Biden and Japanese Engagement

Compared to other countries, Japan maintained a good relationship with President Trump and under his administration, Japanese-U.S. ties remained strong. Much of this can be chalked up to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tact at keeping a strong personal relationship with President Trump, not to mention that Trump’s aggressive China policy was popular in Japan.

Leading up to the November election and during the interim when President Trump challenged the election results, Japanese supporters rallied in support of him in Tokyo. There were certainly a fair share of disagreements throughout President Trump’s term; Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was met with dismay, as was the implementation of a steel and aluminum tariff on Japan. President Trump also frequently called the necessity of the United States and Japan Mutual Defense Treaty into question and demanded Japan pay more in exchange for hosting American troops. Despite this, President Trump enjoyed some of his strongest international support in the country and did not rattle the government in Tokyo as he did in so many other allied countries.

Core issues between the United States and Japan are primarily focused on the security and economic relationship between the countries. Japan hosts roughly 54,000 U.S. troops at 78 bases across the country as part of the military alliance signed after WWII, and the cost of housing these forces is a contentious issue between Washington and Tokyo. Trump suggested that Japan should significantly increase the amount of support it gives to house these troops, which already amounts to $3.8 billion. Article 9 of the post-war Japanese constitution outlaws war for the Japanese state and prevents it from maintaining armed forces with war potential; becuase of this, the U.S stations troops as part of military deployments in allied territory and to assist the Japanese Self-Defenses Forces.

Other issues between the two countries are concerns over the rise of China and how to best face this rising threat from Beijing. Japanese leaders under newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are wary that Biden may take a softer approach on China and focus on domestic issues, neglecting the Japanese-U.S relationship. However, Biden has the ability to build on positive developments begun under President Trump and ensure the Japanese alliance remains the cornerstone of U.S. Indopacific strategy.

In his first phone call with Prime Minister Suga, Biden stressed the importance of the American defense of Japan warranted and reaffirmed the need to cooperate on issues like China and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. One issue of special importance to Japan is territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both Japan and China. Repeated incursions by Chinese vessels and the implementation of a new law in China authorizing coast guard vessels to use weapons against foreign ships near the islands have jittered Tokyo, but Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have expressed “unwavering commitment” to protecting the Senkaku from provocations.

All things considered, Biden will have to devote comparatively little time and effort to “restoring” the Japanese relationship, and can instead focus on working with Suga to hit the ground running on issues that demand American attention. 

U.S. Engagement on the Korean Peninsula

President Trump’s administration provoked both huge escalation and unnerving friendliness between the United States and North Korea, something that put the South Korean government in Seoul on edge throughout his term. Shortly after assuming office, North Korean missile tests confirmed the country had ballistic missiles and in July 2017, Pyongyang successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

This test prompted the infamous threat from Trump that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if the country continued down this path. Trump edged the United States closer to war with North Korea than any previous administration since Eisenhower ended the Korean War in 1953, ordering plans drawn up for a scenario in which the United States would strike first. Amid all of this, South Korea had to rapidly adapt to a president that ignored precedent and pushed the inter-Korean dialogue in new directions. Given that the Trump administration began with Twitter spats and suggestions of nuclear annihilation, it is remarkable then that in June 2018, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unexpectedly met in Singapore in a move that blindsided U.S. allies in the region. Even more shocking was that only a year later, the two leaders met at the DMZ and agreed to resume talks after they had faltered. Despite this, U.S. North Korean relations fell out of favor as the November election heated up and as Trump’s focus was pulled to domestic crises, particularly COVID-19.

Even with high-profile meetings and public sparring online, the Trump administration’s Korea policy never produced anything tangible for the United States, and President Trump left office not quite obtaining a resolution he had hoped for. 

The issues between the two Koreas and the United States are both ideological and material; communist North Korea is backed by China and has existed under a one-party system for decades, while South Korea emerged from dictatorship and military rule in 1987 to become a democratic ally of the United States and major economy in East Asia. Washington is the principal partner of Seoul and provides defensive assistance to the country.

North Korea’s nuclear program remains the most important issue on the peninsula, and the U.S. has sought denuclearization for decades. Since Pyongyang’s nuclear program came to light in the 1990s and its first public test in 2006, the United States has used sanctions in tandem with allies to drive the North to the negotiating table. To date, this has failed to deter North Korea, which sees its nuclear program as essential to ensuring regime survival and preventing South Korea, Japan, and the United States from posing an existential threat.

Beyond the nuclear issue, South Korea and the United States were both slated to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership until President Trump pulled the United States out; trade remains a contentious issue between the allies. As the major military ally of Seoul, military issues are core to the South Korean-U.S. relationship, and the two countries frequently perform joint drills, with one planned for March 2021. 

The challenge for Biden is how to best capitalize on the inconsistent engagement pursued by President Trump while reaffirming the U.S. commitment to South Korea. The Trump administration changed North Korean policy, and not for the better; sporadic dialogue and the downplaying of human rights abuses in the country have weakened international resolve to confront the rogue state. Furthermore, Trump abruptly conceded to Pyongyang’s request to cancel U.S.-South Korean military drills but got no concessions from the North in return.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely relieved to have a more even-tempered administration to deal with, but Biden’s administration still could derail his plans to continue engagement with the North. President Moon has staked his presidency and indeed his legacy on the ability to engage with Pyongyang, something he is sure to want to continue to work at even if a meeting between Washington and North Korea looks extremely unlikely. President Biden has suggested he is open to negotiations with Kim Jong-un, but unlike former President Trump has demanded that concrete steps towards denuclearization be taken in exchange. With Kim Jong-un not interested in denuclearization and South Korean leadership hoping to produce something tangible between the Koreas, President Biden will need to find a middle ground between being firm with Pyongyang that nuclear threats and tests will not be tolerated while giving room for possible Seoul-led negotiations.

More immediately, Biden is faced with a disagreement over housing costs for U.S. troops in South Korea that began under the Trump administration. Biden has made repairing American image and relationships with allies a primary goal of his, and this will no doubt shape his Korea policy. Barring any major provocations from the North, which is unlikely given the history of bellicose rhetoric and action from Pyongyang, Biden will likely stay the course and wait for potential opportune for positive developments. 

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