Biden foreign policy

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - December 11, 2020 - 12:00am

The Trump administration has been unequivocal in its confrontational stance against Chinese expansionism, a stance that suits claimants to the South China Sea, although probably not all of ASEAN. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller’s recent visit to the Philippines reaffirmed the US view of China’s claims in the South China Sea are without merit. He backed it up with symbolic donations of defense equipment made on the heels of earlier visits by his predecessor and by State Secretary Pompeo with the same message. In their visits, the two  senior officials stuck to their business and were careful not to offend their host by mentioning the H word. For the Philippine leadership, sensitive to criticism about his human rights record, this seems like the perfect set up to strengthen its defense capability without being called to task.

Pivot to Asia

Will the Biden administration maintain the same policy and tone that seems to sit well with the Duterte administration? Many Asian nations are understandably concerned about what shape the Biden presidency’s foreign policy towards Asia will be based on his previous pronouncements. Their most recent experience of Democratic foreign policy was with former president Obama’s pivot to Asia which had mixed results. The policy gave shape to what was then America’s rather loosely defined East Asia policy, combining heightened military presence with greater economic engagement. The message to its Asian allies was that the US was going to give priority to Asia’s burgeoning economy and shift from its traditional Eurocentric approach and preoccupation with peace in the Middle East. But while it enhanced America’s military presence in the region, it failed to deliver on its economic dimensions (best exemplified by the failure of TPP to materialize, which would have deepened and consolidated America’s engagement with the region. In truth, what was driving US policy was competition with China – its growing military, economic and technological might, unconstrained by values, mores, and institutions that democratic governments are subject to. China responded to this perceived threat of encirclement by doubling down its military capability, launching its Belt and Road Initiative, and using its economic might to reward nations who bend to its will,  and punish those who do not.

America First

Then came Trump, with his isolationist America First policy, alienating allies and unilaterally retreating from America’s role as “Leader of the Free World”. This uncertainty about US commitment to the Asia-Pacific left countries in the region needing to accommodate the giant next door. In classic “Art of the Deal style” he tried to pressure the Chinese to the negotiating table to settle their trade dispute by applying sanctions and drawing a containment line – from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines – by revitalizing those countries’ existing defense ties with the US. These are welcome developments for the said countries and could not care less about the Trump administration’s motives. That said, despite these belated posturing, the consensus is that the Trump administration has done more to erode America’s influence in the region than his predecessors.

Three challenges

It will be a tough challenge for President-elect Biden to restore trust and confidence in America’s commitment to the region. He is faced with three major challenges. The first is that he will be preoccupied with controlling the pandemic and restoring America’s battered economy, at least in his first year, to be able to focus on foreign policy in Asia. The second is that the foundation of his foreign policy are shared values of democracy and good governance, as it has been for the US until Trump. The problem is populism – tinged with autocracy – which has taken root in the region and three of the allies it wants to cultivate – the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand aren’t exactly going to rally around relations conditioned on democracy and human rights. The third is specific to China in that the US would need its support on climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and global public health.

Control of SCS?

That said, I believe that managing geopolitical and economic competition from China will remain a top foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration, and the South China Sea is crucial to the equation.  Preserving the freedom of navigation in this crucial waterway has global implications. That would depend on who controls it and at this point in time, China is not trusted to be its custodian. The immutable geographical fact is that China would be hard-pressed to defend its occupied territories from the mainland. The United States is also equally some 1500 miles to launch any action from its most forward bases in Okinawa and Guam. US presence in the Philippines – or ready access to its facilities – would tip that balance in its favor.

Nuanced approach

The Duterte administration, on the other hand, is wary of Chinese intentions and that it should know by now that showing goodwill will not deter China from pursuing its core agenda. While there should be mutual benefit, we know that the President is prickly about criticism of human rights violations and extra judicial killings, while the United States’ core values are human rights and democratic governance. I would say that the onus is on the United States to take a nuanced approach to strengthening its alliance with the Philippines.

American ambassador

This should start with Biden filling up as soon as possible the currently vacant post of US ambassador to the Philippines with a seasoned career diplomat who can best articulate this nuanced approach. Ambassador Sung Kim had a successful tour of duty in the Philippines. He was low key, but effective. Being an Asian himself, he knows how to navigate the Filipino mindset and has learned how to deal with Duterte. I am sure he did not abandon democratic values, but communicated US concerns discreetly. It will always be tricky to restrain US congressmen or senators from criticising,  but perhaps the ambassador can head off some of that by being pro-active.

Once the ambassador is in place, a visit by the US Secretary of Defense should follow shortly to reinforce the message conveyed by the ambassador. Canceling the suspension of the VFA, conditioned on addressing its perceived inequities, would be a major boost to addressing aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. It remains in the Philippine interest to maintain mutually beneficial relations with China, particularly for economic reasons, and this assurance of support would give it more credibility in ensuring these engagements are equitable, not one sided and will not require trading sovereignty.

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