Joseph Biden, the presumptive next US President, will be friendlier to China than US President Donald Trump, judging by Biden’s statements and cabinet selections. Biden’s more harmonious posture towards China will please leaders of various Asian countries including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who wants a strong US military presence in Asia Pacific to guarantee security but not conflict between the two superpowers.
Biden, who was Vice President under President Barack Obama, should cultivate an “overall constructive relationship” with China following “quite a tumultuous ride” over the past four years, Lee told Bloomberg Editor-In-Chief John Micklethwait at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum on November 16.
Singapore has a stake in arguably the most important bilateral relationship, given the extensive military cooperation between the US and Singapore as well as substantial trade and investment relations between both China and the US with the Lion City.
On November 24 in Washington DC, Biden announced some cabinet appointments, including Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US Ambassador to the United Nations. At that event, Thomas-Greenfield was quoted in media reports saying, “I want to say to you America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”
Singapore Prime Minister Lee and Singapore Foreign Minister Vivan Balakrishnan have advocated multilateralism. At the virtual Aspen Security Forum on August 5, Balakrishnan stressed the need for multilateral cooperation between the US and China to tackle international problems like COVID-19.
At the event on November 24, Blinken was quoted in media reports saying, “We can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. We need to be working with other countries. We need their cooperation. We need their partnership.”
This indicates the Biden administration will strengthen alliances with Asian countries including Singapore, which is probably what the Singapore government desires.
“Trying to fully decouple, as some have suggested, from China …. is unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive,” Blinken said at an event organized by the US Chamber of Commerce on September 22, according to media reports.
This will be a reversal of Trump’s efforts to decouple the two economies by trying to shift US manufacturing and investments from China to the US and other nations. Singapore may derive some benefit if US companies transfer their operations from China to Singapore, but the Southeast Asian nation risks being a potential victim of Trump’s “America First” policy if US companies leave Singapore for their home country.
“I think we all recognize China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge, we face from another nation state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically. And, you know, the relationship has adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones,” Blinken said in an interview with CBS on September 25.
In the CBS interview, Blinken advocated his country advance cooperation with China on issues including climate change and global health. However, Blinken’s perception of China as a competitor is manifest in his description of China as a techno-autocracy and his recommendation that the US work with “other techno-democracies to make sure that we carry the day and not China.”
“Here’s the problem: right now, by every key metric, China’s strategic position is stronger and ours is weaker as a result of President Trump’s leadership. Think about it this way: President Trump helped China advance its own key strategic goals, weakening American alliances, leaving a vacuum in the world for China to fill, abandoning our values and giving China a green light to trample on human rights and democracy from Xinjiang to Hong Kong,” Blinken told CBS.
Blinken wrote an opinion column headlined, “Trump is ceding global leadership to China”, in the New York Times on November 8, 2017. Referring to the recently ratified China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) of which Singapore is a member, the column said, “Beijing is forging ahead with a trade pact that would include the major Asian economies plus Australia and New Zealand, but not the United States.”
“With Mr. Trump ceding ground to China, the liberal international order that defined the second half of the 20th century could give way to an illiberal one,” Blinken wrote.
At an Asia Society conference in New York in May 2016, Sullivan, who was then a senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton, said working with China to resolve the nuclear threat posed by North Korea would be a key priority if Clinton was elected US President. Clinton lost the US Presidential election to Trump in November 2016.
Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, wrote a column in the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs headlined, “Competition without catastrophe: how America can both challenge and coexist with China”.
In contrast to the Cold War, the present dangers for Washington and Beijing are likely to be confined to the Indo-Pacific, said the column. “Neither side wishes for conflict, but tensions are rising…. Effective US strategy in this domain requires not just reducing the risk of unintentional conflict but also deterring intentional conflict. Beijing cannot be allowed to use the threat of force to pursue a fait accompli in territorial disputes.”
The US should diversify some of its military presence toward Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, making use of access agreements rather than permanent basing when necessary, they suggested.
“The combined weight of US allies and partners can shape China’s choices across all domains—but only if Washington deepens all those relationships and works to tie them together. Although much of the discussion on US-Chinese competition focuses on its bilateral dimension, the United States will ultimately need to embed its China strategy in a dense network of relationships and institutions in Asia and the rest of the world,” said the Foreign Affairs column.
Biden and Sullivan, when he was Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, have met Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Sullivan disclosed in an article he wrote for the January/February 2019 issue of the Atlantic. At that meeting, Lee Kuan Yew expressed admiration for America’s “black box”, referring to Americans’ ability to constantly reinvent themselves.
“We need to find and unlock that black box,” wrote Sullivan.
Who is the biggest threat?
The words of Blinken and Sullivan show they favour some cooperation with China but still see the Asian superpower as a competitor, a view shared by their future boss. In an interview with a US talk show, 60 minutes, on October 25, Biden said the biggest threat to the US in terms of breaking up its security and alliances is Russia, while China is the biggest competitor. Biden’s view of Russia as the greatest threat to the US is a contrast to Trump officials who said China is the greatest threat to their country.
In an interview with Fox on September 2, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said China, not Russia, represents the greatest threat to the US. Pompeo told Fox, “It’s not, frankly, a close call….”
Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a US think tank, on July 7, FBI director Christopher Wray said economic espionage and counterintelligence by the Chinese government pose “the greatest long-term threat” to economic and national security of the US.
Given China’s growing economic and political clout in Asia, Biden’s downgrading of the China threat below Russia should be a relief to Asian governments including Singapore’s.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.
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