Most of the leaders of the myriad of democracies in the Asia Pacific region slept easily in their beds on Wednesday night as Joe Biden came from behind to win first, the largest number of votes in any American presidential election and, second, what appeared to be a decisive lead in the number of electoral college votes needed to take him to the White House.
After another night of counting that lead has narrowed but the former vice president still has the most likely path to victory. However, there is still counting to do, demands for recounts and numerous legal challenges before we have a result.
This followed a nail-biting nine hours after President Donald Trump won the swing state of Florida. Shortly afterward he falsely claimed he had won the presidency, and then made the preposterous, unsubstantiated suggestion that further counting should be stopped because of fraud.
For the Asia Pacific, the Biden presidency offers a new dawn in international relations, which has for four years under the Trump administration been left on the outer rim of White House thinking. The president and secretary of state Mike Pompeo parted company with a rules-based international system based on diplomacy, opting instead for confrontation and ‘dancing with wolves’.
Some commentators, notably from Australia, have suggested Biden will focus on Europe and NATO, to the exclusion of the west side of the Pacific. That is not likely to be the case. They forget that, as vice president, Biden played a major role in the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, including negotiating American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, dropped by Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential bid.
Arguably more significant, Biden is a globalist, a strong supporter of the United Nations and other international institutions, and of democracy.
So how will his foreign policy pledges affect our region? Biden says that on the first day of his administration, the United States will rejoin the Paris Accord on climate change. It will then convene a meeting of the world’s major carbon emitters, including China, to bring forward targets and lock in enforceable targets.
In writing, “The United States must lead the world to take on the existential threat we face – climate change. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter. I will make massive, urgent investments at home that put the United States on track to have a clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050.”
This will be good news for the Pacific islands, and for a number of ASEAN countries, and will likely mean the Morrison government will have to change its ways.
Another pledge is to call a Global Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose” of the nations of the free world. Biden said: “As a summit commitment of the United States, I will issue a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility, and I will lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.”
Biden has mocked Trump’s negotiations with Korea’s Kim, saying he will jump-start a “sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others, including China, to advance our shared objective of a de-nuclearized North Korea”.
As George Friedman, the founder of Geopolitical Futures, reminds us, foreign policy at best is a list of intentions that, more often than not, don’t become a reality. This may not be true of the pledges I have reported so far, but other Biden statements reflecting the Asia Pacific are more nebulous.
For example, Biden has promised to be tough with China. We can draw our own conclusions as to what that means. Clearly he will be less aggressive than Trump but not, as he puts it, ‘a chump’. He says he will insist that Beijing stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing pollution to other countries by “financing billions of dollars’ worth of dirty fossil fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road initiative”.
Given that most countries in the Asia Pacific have signed up to the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but the US has not, it is hard to see how this objective will be met.
Similarly, Biden has offered to reinvest in treaty alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea, and to deepen partnerships from India to Indonesia to “advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future”. This will be music to the ears of the leaders in these countries, but it has little meaning without the detail.
History tells us that in our region, as elsewhere in the world, past presidents have had the best of intentions blown off course by events. Harold Macmillan, a former British prime minister, famously credited his downfall to ‘events, dear boy, events’. Biden will be hoping that his own mood of calm determination will be matched in the region.