The 21st century is said to be the Asian Century. With increasing economic capabilities and compromising most of the world’s population, Asian countries have ascended the ranks rapidly in terms of their soft power and geopolitical influence on a global stage. American foreign policy, however, remains antiquated and incoherent.
With arguably one of the most important elections in modern American history less than two weeks away, one would expect candidates to field questions about their vision of maintaining America’s status as the global superpower during the presidential debate. However, we’ve instead found ourselves mired in a melange of interruptions and personal attacks, interspersed with surface-level comments about COVID-19 and rising racial tensions in the U.S. While the debate did little to educate voters and the international community on where the two candidates stand on global issues, it is possible to infer their likely stances and foreign policy priorities based on their respective track records. It is time for America to look to the East, and demand clarity and accountability for coherent international relations that will shape the course of the world over the next few decades.
While former Vice President Joe Biden has not explicitly stated his foreign policy plans other than vague statements to “Restore and Reimagine Partnerships,” it is reasonable to infer that Biden’s approach to international relations will be similar to his work under the Obama administration. In the Obama-Biden era, the U.S. adopted a policy dubbed as the “Pivot to Asia” in their second term, which left a controversial legacy in the region. Quite surprisingly, this so-called shift brought the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement introduced by the Bush administration for increased cooperation between the U.S. and rising Asian economic powerhouses, to a halt. Another mistake was that this pivot came at the expense of a decline in transatlantic relationships, which allowed Russia greater influence over Europe. Additionally, the Obama-Biden administration carelessly neglected U.S. military actions in the South China Sea, paving the way for China to assert an unjust claim over international waters and expand its geopolitical influence to neighboring countries.
Biden has only outlined three specific areas of focus: re-committing the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, reversing the decision to leave the World Health Organization, and ending the trade war against China. His attitude toward China has created a serious credibility problem for him in many Asian countries, who appreciate President Trump’s uncensored rhetoric against increasing Chinese belligerence. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India would prefer a second term for President Trump. Thus, choosing between Biden and Trump may not necessarily be as clear cut as voters may think, as strong ties with emerging powers will be a key cornerstone for America to retain its global superpower status. There are legitimate policy arguments that favor Trump. In a drastically different post-COVID world, alliances and key partnerships will be more important than ever, and it is essential to consider who is best equipped for this task.
For all of the shortcomings of the Obama-Biden era foreign policy, Trump’s international ventures too have been incoherent and sporadic. Over the past few years, the Trump administration has made a series of almost random, sudden moves — including withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and alienating allies in Europe. In fact, the only consistency might be Trump’s hostility towards China. China’s rise brings the world closer to a bipolar power structure, as it continues its rapid expansion of geopolitical and economic influence. Trump, notably, has two defining features in his aggressive approach towards China: the U.S.-China trade war, which has generated significant headlines, and the less-covered revival of the Quad, an informal strategic partnership between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan.
Originally conceived in 2007, the Quad was formed in response to increasing Chinese economic and military power. The alliance has largely been inactive until this year. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, each of these four countries have seen an extreme rise in geopolitical tensions with China: a trade war with Australia, record-high negative views of China in Japan as well as an economic decoupling, and a historic border conflict with India which spurred a barbaric brawl that caused tens of fatalities on both sides. The U.S., of course, has blamed China for intentionally suppressing information that led to the spread of COVID-19 globally.
These occurrences are not sudden. Tensions have been steadily increasing in the Asia-Pacific with China instigating territorial conflict with 17 Asian countries and counting, over land and sea. Being the three biggest regional powers after China, India, Australia and Japan are now steadily moving to create a NATO-esque military and economic alliance with the U.S. to ensure balance of power and stability. It is thus not surprising that these leaders, among others, favor a Trump re-election. The future security of our world depends on this alliance — an increasingly belligerent and meteoric rise to power for China does not bode well for the world. Thus, regardless of whoever is in office after the election, policymakers must pressure the administration to continue prioritizing the Quad as a foreign policy focus.
A choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden represents the conundrum of choosing between the lesser of two evils. For Asia, a Biden presidency risks a return to the status quo, an Obama-era cooperative U.S.-China policy, with the naive hopes of reconciliation and liberalization. This could be a historic blunder akin to Chamberlain’s calamitous policy of appeasement in 1940. On the other hand, with a Trump re-election, who knows? One cannot expect a coherent logic or pattern to the blundering unpredictability of a rudderless ship.
One thing that cannot be denied, however, is that it is time for America to ditch its antiquated foreign policy. We must now look to the East — for better or worse — as there is no escaping the rise of Asia, and the fallout it may bring.
Aayush Gupta (22B) is from Singapore.