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Global Econopolitics

Shape of a Post-Trump world

  Executive Research Director


If today is the voting day of the US presidential election, Mr. Biden’s victory is highly likely, according to opinion polls in the US. Poor responses to Corona virus problem and racial discrimination issue by president Trump have been criticized and to what extent domestic economy will be recovered by the election day is deeply unclear.

What will happen if Biden win?

Of course, no one can be sure what could happen until the election day in November, and it is still a dramatic memory that Mr. Trump won by overturning most expectations in the previous 2016 presidential election. It is not the purpose of this article to predict the outcome of the election. However, if there is growing possibilities that Mr. Trump will leave the White House in January next year, we should start thinking what does that mean. What will change if Biden becomes next president and what will not change? What does it mean to the rest of the world?

First, as a common sense line, the style of diplomacy will change dramatically. Mr. Biden would appeal to the line of respecting international arrangements and institutions, without advocating the US first principle or focusing on bilateral deals.

For example, Mr. Biden has stated that if he becomes president, he will return to the Paris Agreement, which is the international framework for combating global warming, on the first day of his presidency. According to a contribution to an US magazine, he seems to consider returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump Administration has left, and will pursue an extension of the New START treaty with Russia, which will expire in February 2021(note 1). He will not take such an extreme approach toward the World Health Organization as Mr. Trump, who announced withdrawal from it, but will try to reflect the national interests of the US while maintaining the relationship.

Keeping tough position on China

On the other hand, there is something that should be assumed that the current trend will continue without returning to the days before Trump. One such a thing will be a strict attitude toward China.

With Trump administration, policy toward China became remarkably tough, and now vigilance and distrust on China seems to be bipartisan. It is unlikely that Washington’s view on China will change significantly regardless of who will be the president of the US. China, which had been expected to take some time to catch up, quickly became powerful in the field like technology and the dominant position of the United States is no longer safe. Mr.Xi Jinping’s China does not hidden its ambition to become the world’s strongest nation alongside the United States. These are some of the background of the way US sees China.

Continuity from Obama era

Policy of Trump administration is better than going back to the one of engagement with China during the Obama era――. A discussion of this point, which was written by a person named Y.A., who is described as “an official of the Government of Japan”, was published in the US magazine The American Interest this April. This contribution, entitled “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy,” praises Mr. Trump as the president who correctly recognized the problems of China for the first time after the end of the Cold War, and argues that the US should not return to previous policy (note 2).

Some critics argue that the Obama administration, which Mr. Biden was vice president, didn’t abandon policy of encouraging China to change its attitude through engagement (dialogue) and that spoiled China. But if the author of this article thinks Mr. Biden would choose such a policy in case he becomes president, it would be too much simplistic. As I have pointed, the United States is unlikely to take accommodative attitude toward China.

Even in the Obama era, the view from the US on China had become quite severe in the latter half of the administration. Emphasis was placed on deterrence rather than engagement. Thus, current US attitude toward China should be seen as an extension of the disappointment that had accumulated since the Obama era, rather than a sudden change of route. The flow had already begun.

Forming a China encirclement network?

If there is something Japan and other Asian countries should worry about, that must be that the conflict between the United States and China increases further under the Biden administration and the US puts a strong pressure on its allies and others to cooperate in forming a kind of China encirclement network.

Trump administration’s approach to China has been America first and it has preferred bilateral transactions. In the areas related to national security, the administration requires third countries to synchronize US policy such as the case of Huawei Technologies, but trade negotiations generally conducted by direct and exclusive negotiations with China. It has shown little interest in advocating and strengthening multilateral rules and the free trade system.

US Secretary of State Mr.Pompeo, in his speech on July 23, strongly criticized Chinese Communist Party and proposed to form a new group of like-minded countries with the US. This may suggest a new approach by Trump Administration, but since we know that Mr. Trump has not been enthusiastic about joint actions with allies and has even created tensions and distrust with European countries on trade disputes, how much influence this kind of remarks create is unclear.

Mr. Biden’s approach could be simpler. He would increase the number of calls for cooperation with the US policy toward China. While advocating multilateralism, he may calculate that it is more effective to put pressure on China by using power of group rather than doing alone.

What would be Mr. Biden’s policy toward China? He seems unlikely to be obsessed with reducing trade deficits as Mr. Trump was, but he will be sensitive to the hegemony over technology and will try to defend the US dominance. By stating security reasons, he would focus on ways to prevent China from acquiring key US companies and technologies. He will probably try to manage China under an US-led rule oriented international system by revitalizing international organizations such as WTO(World Trade Organization). He might not entrust China with the production of important manufacturing industries, which could lead decoupling to some extent. He will certainly take a firm approach to the protection of human rights and democracy.

Nightmare of being forced to choose

In Asia, not only countries in this region including Japan want to maintain close economic relations with China, but many of them also feel security concern due to their geographical proximity. They want to avoid falling into hostile relations with China. It is a nightmare scenario for them to see the United States escalates the conflict with China and ask Asian countries “Which ally?”

Mr.Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, stressed “Asia-Pacific countries do not wish to be forced to choose between the United States and China” in his contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “The Endangered Asian Century” (note 3). Japan has the most important relationship with the United States, but that does not mean the country is ready to break with China. It will be increasingly important for Japan in the medium-to-long term to find ways to avoid making undesirable choice in collaboration with other Asian countries.

Improving US-Europe relations

It should be also noted that if Mr. Biden become president, relations with Europe, which deteriorated under the Trump administration, would improve. Mr. Trump deeply disappointed Europe with an announcement of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and an attitude of making light of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union. It was obvious that his relationship with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel was not good.

Mr. Biden positions NATO as “at the very heart of the United States’ national security.” The European side will surely welcome restoration of relations with US. The improvement of US-Europe relations is desirable for Japan as well, but there are some subtleties.

Japan and Europe are now in an exceptionally good relationship. They signed Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in 2018, and in 2019 signed a document on digital infrastructure investment cooperation. For European side, worsening relationship with Trump administration was one of the reasons why they became more active in strengthening its relationship with Japan.

If Mr. Trump leaves his office and the US-Europe relationship improves, it is not surprising that the European side becomes less enthusiastic about Japan. The US government may become less interested in keeping in touch with Japan’s counterpart as frequently as now. If current chilly US-Europe relations have increased Japan’s relative value, a certain degree of unwinding could occur.

There are many pending and disturbing factors between US and Europe, such as how to face China, policies on Russia, and digital taxation for IT companies. If the economic difficulties caused by Corona pandemic continue and grow both in the US and Europe the relationship may not be easily improved to the point where it used to be. Still, the key point is that the tone changes. Japan needs to redefine its strategy, taking into accounts the changes of relations of these major players.

What Japan should aim for

If President Trump is re-elected, confusion of the world most influential country will continue. On the other hand, even if the Biden administration is born, it is not clear how stable the world will be. Whether Mr. Biden can handle policies on Russia and North Korea well, in addition to China, will remain to be seen. It goes without saying that Mr. Trump would be more desirable for Japan, but we should not have too much expectations for the Post-Trump America.

Prime Minister Lee wrote that the United States and China are not the only major countries with a great deal of influence in the Asia-Pacific region, and in particular Japan has much to contribute to the region. As an example, he pointed out Japan has led the 11-nation agreement after the US left the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Expectations for Japan’s role are also heard from Europe. Whoever the next president of the United States, Japan should aim to become a country that is needed by both the US and China as well as the one counted on by Asian and European countries. Japan must be prepared that its role and behavior will be more important in the years to come.

(note1) Joseph R. Biden, JR., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020

(note 2) Y.A., “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy,” The American Interest, April 10, 2020

(note3) Lee Hsien Loong, “The Endangered Asian Century,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020

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