How will the Biden deal with South Korea and China?
The next President of the United States understands that the world is facing a double crisis, created by the COVID-19 pandemic and by climate change.
He recognizes that these are problems that cannot be solved by a single country: they require a huge international effort.
Joe Biden therefore plans to bring together friends and allies, including Japan, and seek their support.
Summit for Democracy
I expect Mr. Biden to welcome Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as a VIP guest at a Summit for Democracy, which he plans to convene, after his inauguration.
The conference will almost certainly be held online, rather than in person, due to COVID-19. The most likely date is February 2021.
During his election campaign, Biden said the summit would help “renew the spirit and common purpose of the nations of the free world.”
The implication is that the United States will resume its place at the head of the table, while other democratic nations will join in with suggestions on how to support their plans, mindful of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy slogan: ” America is back.
I doubt Mr. Suga openly challenges this approach, although he will likely demand a number of concessions from the new president in private.
In return for Japan’s loyalty, Suga will expect President Biden’s unequivocal commitment to the US-Japan alliance – the bedrock of Japan’s security policy – and to stop grumbling about spending. “burden sharing,” which was a hallmark of President Trump’s Twitter feed.
Personally, I find it regrettable that Mr Suga has not been elected Prime Minister of Japan, at least not yet. He accepted the post after being chosen by senior Liberal Democrats politicians following Shinzo Abe’s resignation in the summer of 2020.
Would Mr. Suga not have more legitimacy on the world stage if he had called a general election and invited the Japanese people to vote for him as their representative?
Tricky guest list
I do not envy the Washington diplomatic team that was tasked with compiling the guest list for the Democracy Summit. As the editor of a magazine on Asian politics called Asain’s Business, I see that Asia presents particular dilemmas.
Vietnam is a communist country, but it sided with America against China. Should we therefore invite him? Cambodia, an ally of China, is currently complaining about the pressure to use Chinese vaccines against the coronavirus. Should his prime minister, Hun Sen, be shown the red carpet, via Zoom?
And what about Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, who has twice been elected national leader and representative of the Democratic Progressive Party?
Despite good relations with Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party, China will be furious if President Tsai attends, as the PRC considers the island to be part of its sovereign territory.
South Korea’s place in Asia
I suspect an invitation to the event will be sent to South Korean President Moon Jae In. South Korea remains an ally of the United States, even though the general opinion in Asia is that it is sinking further. and deeper into China’s sphere of influence.
As the meeting takes place online, Mr. Moon will not be required to shake hands with Mr. Suga, who rejects a Seoul Supreme Court request that Japanese companies should be forced to pay compensation to Korea for historical disputes. Japan says these issues have been resolved a long time ago.
Mr. Moon tells his supporters that reunification between North Korea and South Korea is achievable within a generation, even though North Koreans currently refuse to speak to the South. They blew up the Joint Liaison Office for the Inter-Korean Dialogue in the summer of 2020.
There are also worrying signs that North Korea intends to show Mr Biden that it still sees America and Japan as enemies, either by firing a long-range missile, like the one featured recently. during a military parade in Pyongyang, or by firing more rockets. in the Sea of Japan.
Biden and Xi
Then there is the question of China.
China is no more interested in watering down its Communist ideology to suit Mr. Biden, any more than it has been for Mr. Trump. He also doesn’t expect a network of US allies to thwart his ambitions for regional dominance and increased global influence.
At present, Beijing’s propaganda focuses on patriotic pride and ideological purity. The Chinese Communist Party took advantage of its recent annual conference in Beijing hail President Xi as the “main navigator at the helm”. He promised that China “will surely overcome all kinds of difficulties and obstacles on the road ahead” and expressed confidence in the superiority of the socialist system.
China and the United States agree that disease and climate change are pressing issues that require collective action. However, China expects to be seen as the nation most respected for its work for the “global public good,” as President Xi puts it.
China is distributing millions of doses of its COVID-19 vaccines to the poorest countries, even though the formulas have failed to pass rigorous scientific safety tests. China is also the first major economy to recover from the economic impact of COVID, with GDP growth of 4.9% recorded for the third quarter of 2020, official figures show.
China’s climate promises
President Xi has made bold pledges on climate change. He announced that China will aim to peak in emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
However, the new US Special Representative on Climate Issues, John Kerry, noted: “China is about to bring 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power online. India is prepared to do a little less, but equally huge amounts. It will kill us. It will kill the efforts to deal with the climate. ”
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Biden must question whether China’s climate policy promises are meaningful or trustworthy. They should also think about what concessions China might want in return for cooperation with the United States in this area.
Would she expect, for example, that America would tolerate a Chinese invasion of the Japanese Senkaku Islands? Or is China really aiming to distance the United States from its key Indo-Pacific alliances with Japan and South Korea?
These are serious challenges for the new foreign policy teams in Washington. Many diplomats working with Biden have experience of the Obama years, when America made a so-called “pivot to Asia.”
Since then, China has become much stronger and more assertive. He’s convinced America’s allies don’t pose much of a problem, as they appear to be disorganized, economically weakened by the pandemic, and distracted by competing national interests.
There is another deep problem with the Democracy Summit. It must take place at a time when America’s reputation as a democracy is in tatters.
Donald Trump is still trying to rally his supporters to reject the result of a free and fair election. He is unlikely to officially concede defeat, even after Mr Biden is sworn in as president.
Trump may even return to the political arena, full of fire and fury, when the next election cycle begins.
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Barlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and runs the news portal History of Japan, which contains articles, podcasts and videos. From January 2021, he assumes a new role as presenter of the China In Focus podcast, in association with the SOAS China Institute, University of London. Find his pieces on JAPAN Before here.