In an interdependent world, even the “indispensable” United States cannot stand alone.
Last week, I focused on the need for president-elect Joe Biden to renew America’s transatlantic ties with Europe—the foundation of Western prosperity and stability since 1945—damaged by Donald Trump’s short-sighted “America First” policy. Biden must also urgently attend to Asia, where the US lost considerable ground in the last four years.
With his “pivot to Asia”, president Barack Obama had completed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with 12 Pacific Rim Countries to cement US leadership in Asia and counter China’s increasing influence. But Trump, with his America First foolishness, pulled the US out, damaging a “mega-regional accord” with a combined GDP of US$27 trillion. Golden global opportunity gone! US income would have grown $131 billion with TPP, with prosperity spreading across the Pacific. Led by Japan, the 11 other countries persisted, forming the substitute Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a shrunken group without the US.
Seizing the opportunity, China immediately pushed for its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) started in 2012 with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to check growing US influence in the Asia-Pacific.
RECEP was expanded to include other nations of the region. Last Sunday the agreement was signed, creating one of the largest free trade deals in history. It involves the ten ASEAN members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—30 per cent of the world population. With simplified Rules of Origin it will add US$186 billion to the global economy. “A major step forward for our region,” says Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, with “connected supply chains, freer trade and closer interdependence”.
As the major market and exporter in RCEP, China will grow its influence in the Asia-Pacific. India could have provided a check on Beijing had it not withdrawn from negotiations, fearing Chinese competition swamping its emerging manufacturing sector. Experts say India should rejoin to achieve its goals of rapid industrial growth and becoming an Asian superpower.
How must Biden approach this development which could diminish American influence in Asia? He wants to check China’s regional dominance and revive US economic growth. He must rebuild alliances. Get the US to join the CPTPP. Face down prevalent US scepticism over free trade. He has an opportunity with the economy damaged by the pandemic leaving millions unemployed. He must argue strongly that, as shown by its history, trade is the best route to prosperity for the United States. America cannot afford to remain outside two agreements that will now determine the direction of trade and investment in Asia. Trump’s unilateral trade war with China is already hurting US companies and consumers. Former US ambassador to China Gary Locke points out that instead of the US, Brazil is now selling soy beans to China and Europe’s “Airbus is selling planes there instead of Boeing”.
There is also the issue of hard power in America-Asia ties. While Asian allies welcome trade with China, they also approve US military muscle against Beijing’s in the South China Sea, where Trump increased the America’s naval presence.
Allies welcome Biden’s signalled toughness. He will maintain “freedom of navigation” patrols in both the Sea and Taiwan Strait. Indeed last Thursday, demonstrating he will be strong in Asia, he assured Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga that the US-Japan defence treaty applies to the disputed Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan since the 19th century, but which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.
Biden will also continue arms sales to Taiwan and would likely pursue a US-Taiwan trade deal for which there is bipartisan US support. He must also get a clear commitment from Beijing not to attack Taiwan. China recently increased exercises in the Taiwan Strait and its fighter jets made several sorties into Taiwanese airspace.
Deterrence is key in avoiding a hot war with China. Biden must therefore continue efforts to beef up the Quad with Australia, India and Japan whose navies have conducted exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the Northern Arabian Sea to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Southeast Asian nations, wary of China’s long-term intentions and “desperate to maintain strategic autonomy”, would welcome this. So would India with its military stand-off with China along their disputed border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, immediately sent congratulations to the president-elect whose campaign had criticised India for “its backsliding on democracy and human rights”. However, relations are expected to remain warm. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace say “the US cannot create an effective balance of power against China without India”.
South Korea is also looking forward to Biden reviving the US-South Korea trade deal that Trump discarded and retaining American troops on the Korean peninsula that Trump threatened and which is necessary for checking the unpredictable North Korea.
Biden promises to make America “a beacon again, leading not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example”. He is on the right track, re-embracing Asia.