We need Biden to repair Trump’s damage
Duncan McCampbell writes (“Re-setting relations”, December 2020) that the election of Joe Biden as US President provides both America and China with an opportunity to review the ways in which they engage with each other.
The Trump administration gave multiple windfall opportunities for China to strengthen its strategic position in global affairs, by removing the USA from “frontline duties” on the international stage. The in-coming President will not find it easy to roll back the damage done, not only because China has moved to fill the vacuum but also because America’s allies have also realigned their interests to survive its withdrawal from the world stage.
One prime example of this is the TPP, which the USA joined in February 2016 but left less than a year later in January 2017, as Donald Trump’s first Presidential act. The remaining countries negotiated the CPTPP, so that a new trade framework could be formed without US participation. China has voiced its willingness to join this pact, putting pressure on the US to counterbalance this potential shift in the centre of gravity in global trade.
Japan must be concerned that too rapid an about-turn in US foreign and trade policies will cause more harm than good, especially by making the yen stronger. In terms of security and the environment, however, many friends of the US want to see the country regain lost ground. Failure to do so will only encourage weaker nations to coalesce around China.
Biden will not reset relations with China
Re. Prof McCampbell’s latest article on US-China relations (Resetting relations, Asian Affairs, Dec. edition): To ‘reset relations’ would imply that the US would, under a Biden Administration, ease off on the ‘America First’ foreign affairs doctrine adopted under Trump and take a more conciliatory approach towards China.
If that approach were followed it would mark a return to a US foreign policy which attempted to coax China towards the western model of liberal democracy, through economic prosperity, globalisation and market reform.
Yet Biden said during his presidential campaign that he ‘would not go soft on China’ and indicated that he will seek renewed cooperation with America’s regional allies in Asia to confront and restrain China’s rise in power.
I therefore do not believe that Biden will reset relations between the US and China anytime soon; he simply does not have domestic political support from Congress or of the wider American public.
The interests of the US and China are fundamentally divergent. Yes, the US can ‘reset relations’ with its international allies, especially in Asia. But I do not expect a resetting of relations with China in the current political climate.
For Asia, minor
A recent article that appeared in your magazine, ‘The price of hawkishness’, is central to understanding not only UK-China but also UK-Asia relations.
The piece discusses UK-China relations, but it is also relevant to understanding the UK’s position throughout Asia. Duncan Bartlett posits that hawkish UK policies towards China might come at a (too high) price, which is a real political fact. Britain now stands rather small and alone outside the European Union after Brexit, and faces losing its by far most important trading partner. As the weaker unit, the UK will therefore simply depend even more heavily on trade with China, now and in the future.
It is a long time since Britain was a heavyweight global power and today it finds itself even more weakened. It is simply not a significant or relevant power in Asia.
This is nothing new. Indeed, in recognition of the disastrous and humiliating UK-France Suez intervention in 1956, the British government officially decided a policy that the UK was no longer capable or willing to meddle in security politics in the part of the world lying East of the Suez. This is well researched and documented. Hence, the UK has not been, for 60-plus years, a real global power. Later, the UK again adapted her subsidiary existence to mostly just act as a 15% ‘auxiliary complement’ to US operations in other not very successful interventions, like Iraq and Afghanistan. The 15% was also a UK government policy figure (source: www.DIIS.DK/en paper).
The whole UK entry into the EU (then the EEC) in 1973 was a consequence of the then-British government’s recognition of Britain’s fragile trading position as a ‘loner’ in the world. Brexit-voting Conservatives are today simply oblivious (or rather, in denial) about that fact. Very sad for UK citizens, but of less importance to the rest of the world.
Britain can symbolically issue visas for Hong-Kong residents, deliver lofty words and similar, sail around with a frigate – but do little more in Asia. It is of minor relevance in Asian relations.
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Taking the initiative
Humphrey Hawksley’s piece ‘Recast on the Asian Stage’ (Nov. edition) raised some important issues about the way a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ views the world, including Asia.
I believe it is in the long-term interest of Britain to tap into the growth potential of Asia and this means it should partner with key players in the region. Britain needs to go beyond simply doing whatever the United States wants it to do. Indeed, one of the government’s promises to the people of Britain was that once freed from the EU, the UK would pursue a more independent role. Britain struck a free trade deal with Japan this year; yet the Japanese economy is in recession and that country has lagged behind its potential growth rate for many years.
The reality is that it is not Japan but China which is the growth engine for the global economy. Furthermore, China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative promises to lift millions of people in Asia out of poverty. On this basis, it seems Britain should become more engaged with China and fully support BRI projects. This partnership will not diminish Britain’s role in the world. Rather, it will enable it to fully play its role as an independent, forward-looking nation.