It is hard to find in post-war American history a greater divide between two Presidential candidates on foreign policy than in 2020.
The Donald Trump-Joe Biden differences are globe-spanning and issue-spanning: climate change; multilateralism; trade; alliances; North Korea; Iran; Israel; the WHO … the list goes on and on.
Biden is the custodian of one of the oldest beliefs in the American political tradition, that the United States is a grand experiment whose wealth and power are testament to the eternal truth of its values.
The responsibility that comes with its wealth and power is leadership – the word that has most characterised Biden’s outlines of his foreign policy platform. For Biden there can be no American greatness without American leadership; an America that doesn’t lead cannot by definition be great.
Trump’s views draw on a different conception of the United States, as a society of people who removed themselves from the grubby politics and rivalries of the old world.
The danger for American values and institutions is corruption by becoming entangled with those rivalries and tawdry dealings again.
For Trump, America can only become great again if it exits all the deals and institutions that his misguided predecessors have allowed the US to be dragged into: multilateral bodies; alliances; free trade agreements.
The liberal internationalist belief in American leadership is for Trump a form of false consciousness that has allowed other countries to exploit, undermine and weaken America.
Trump’s instincts are to put America first at all times, with little care for the consequences for neighbours, allies and partners.
There’s one big exception to the polar divide between Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policy positions: China.
On China, the positions of the two candidates are almost indistinguishable, reflecting the growing bipartisan consensus on this issue in the United States.
Trump has grabbed headlines through his bombastic trade war and bizarre pronouncements about the “China virus”, but the broad trajectory of growing American hostility to China predates the Trump administration.
Anger at Beijing’s trade and monetary policy, alarm at its foreign policy, scepticism about its compliance with international rules, and suspicion about its espionage activities had been growing for at least a decade by the time Trump reached the Oval Office.
Complications lie ahead in handling China for whomever wins the White House.
Trump’s aggressive approach — and that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is increasingly seeming to push for regime change in Beijing —will be fraught with difficulties.
Most obviously, it isn’t working. Trump’s muscular stance has achieved little more than minor trade concessions.
China’s President Xi Jinping hasn’t resiled from any of the behaviours that the US finds most concerning — galloping authoritarianism at home and prickly assertiveness abroad.
Second, China’s is the major economy likely to be least damaged by the COVID crisis, while America’s will be in deep trouble. Will Trump’s trade war approach be possible as the American economy struggles to grow out of a deep depression?
Third, the problem of North Korea is worsening as Pyongyang forges ahead with its nuclear and missile programs, despite Trump’s promise of a deal.
If he needs to return to the deal table, Beijing will be a vital partner.
Biden’s China policy is beset with a deep contradiction: despite vowing a more pragmatic relationship with Beijing, he wants to pressure behaviour change from China by leveraging US leadership among democracies.
A pragmatic objective pursued with ideological means.
Furthermore, many of these candidate democracies and quasi-democracies have shown little interest in confronting China. Japan, Singapore and Indonesia, and even Australia, have shown clear unwillingness to join Trump’s and Pompeo’s rhetorical attacks on Beijing.
Biden’s hope that this is because it’s Trump who is making them and not for hard pragmatic reasons is a triumph of hope over experience.
Asia’s distinctive form of regionalism had been at risk of atrophy even before America’s 45th President was inaugurated.
While the annual round of summits and their preparatory meetings continue, the substance discussed and the agreements reached look increasingly threadbare and divorced from the actual challenges threatening the region.
A case in point is the much-promised Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, which has sputtered along at pre-negotiation stage while legal claims and counter-claims are made and aircraft carriers face off in those troubled waters.
Trump’s arrival and boorish behaviour led to an expectation that with trust in America waning, Asian regionalism would tighten. It hasn’t.
The high point of ‘without-America regionalism’ was probably the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPATPP) in December 2018.
Biden’s hope is to return to the status quo ante — foreign policy before Trump. One big symbolic gesture would be to sign on to the CPATPP.
Then there is the issue of restoring American credibility in Asia, which was already waning before Trump came to power.
This, topped with four years of Trump’s erratic foreign policy, has seen nations across the Indo-Pacific looking for other ways to shore up their security against a rising China.
Arms imports have jumped, along with security collaboration between hitherto distant partners: Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Australia.
The task for Biden in reversing this tide and placing America once more in the lead is enormous.
The US is more needed but less trusted in Asia in 2020 than it was in 2016 and its strategic currents are flowing quickly and unpredictably. Trump or Biden need to come to terms with this quickly, or we face another untidy four years.
A version of this article was co-published with Melbourne Asia Review at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.
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