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A Nov. 8 tweet from former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull captured the sentiment of many Asian political leaders to news that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election:
“Congratulations Joe Biden and Kamala Harris! What a relief that you won!”
In a later appearance on Australian TV, Turnbill elaborated: “It’s a relief to have a return to normal transmission, to have an administration that is going to be consistent, that isn’t going to be making decisions by wild tweets in the early hours of the morning, that isn’t going to be walking out of global treaties and alliances, discombobulating friends and foes alike.”
Turnbill, of course, has some first-hand experience with getting discombobulated: his first official phone call with Trump in 2016 was a diplomatic disaster. But Turnbill’s successor, Scott Morrison, who has often boasted of his special rapport with Trump, seemed no less elated by Biden’s victory.
“Australia wishes you every success in office,” Morrison gushed in a tweet. In a subsequent statement, Morisson hailed Biden as a “great friend of Australia,” praised his “commitment to multilateral institutions,” and promised to invite the new president to Australia to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the military treaty between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
The leaders of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, too, have touted their affinity for Trump; former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader Trump invited to the White House, and the two men bonded over golf.
And yet Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, emerged all smiles from his congratulatory phone call with the president-elect. In their 15-minute exchange, Suga told the Japanese press, Biden had made a point of declaring that the U.S.-Japan security alliance applies to a disputed rock outcropping in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and calls the Senkaku Islands but China also claims as the Diaoyu Islands.
Biden’s calls with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were no less cordial. Moon worked closely with Trump to arrange an unprecedented 2018 summit to discuss denuclearization. Those talks produced a publicity storm but not much else, and eventually collapsed. Biden told Moon that, unlike Trump, he won’t meet with Kim without preconditions, but assured him that South Korea is a “lynchpin of the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” according to Moon’s spokesman.
Modi, who all-but campaigned for Trump during the election, extolled Biden’s victory as a “testament to the strength and resilience of democratic traditions in the United States,” according to an Indian foreign ministry readout of the call. The two leaders discussed “shared priorities” including climate change and “cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The nuances of those exchanges with America’s key Asian allies offer early clues to how Biden’s approach to managing relations in the region will differ from that of his predecessor—and how it won’t.
Biden and his advisors have stressed that what won’t change is the recognition that China has emerged as America’s primary strategic competitor, and that four decades of economic “engagement” have failed to transform China into a liberal democracy as many U.S. foreign policy experts had previously hoped.
Biden’s choices to lead his foreign policy team—including Anthony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and other policy advisers such as Michele Flournoy, Ely Ratner, and Kurt Campbell—have staked out hardline policy positions on China.
In a new interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Biden said he won’t move immediately to lift the 25% tariffs Trump imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods and components used by U.S. manufacturers, nor would he scrap Trump’s “phase one” trade agreement requiring China to purchase about $200 billion in additional U.S. goods and services in 2020 and 2021.
“I’m not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to tariffs,” Biden told Friedman. “I’m not going to prejudice my options.”
Blinken has vowed that the Biden administration will “fully enforce” the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which places sanctions on officials, financial institutions, companies and individuals deemed to have undermined the territory’s autonomy. It seems equally unlikely that Biden will loosen the restrictions Trump has placed on the sale of U.S. chip-manufacturing technologies to Chinese companies including Huawei Technologies.
Biden said he intends to crack down on China’s “abusive practices” like “stealing intellectual property, dumping products, illegal subsidies to corporations” and forcing technology transfers from American companies to Chinese partners.
But he stressed the need for “good old American industrial policy” to bolster investment in research and development, infrastructure, and education at home, while strengthening ties with American allies abroad.
“The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our —or at least what used to be our—allies on the same page,” he said.
Whether Chinese President Xi Jinping shares Malcolm Turnbill’s sense of relief about the election’s outcome is anyone’s guess. Beijing offered its congratulations to Biden on Nov. 13, becoming one of the last major powers to do so. “We respect the American people’s choice,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. “We congratulate Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.”
In just a few minutes, please feel free to join us for “On the Road Again,” a virtual conversation to ponder “The Future of Post-Pandemic Travel.” Grady and I will talk with special guests Trip.com CEO Jane Sun, Singapore Tourism Board Chief Executive Keith Tan, Group President for Marriott International Craig S. Smith, and McKinsey & Co. Partner Steve Saxon. Our conversation will take place today at 9 P.M. Beijing time (8 A.M. New York). You can join the livestream here.
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