US-China rivalry: Biden likely to boost ties with Asian allies to keep Beijing in check, observers say

Teddy Ng
·4-min read

A Joe Biden presidency is unlikely to mean a reduction in the United States’ efforts to contain China as regardless of who is in the White House, Washington will continue to boost ties with its Asian allies to keep Beijing in check, observers say.

While a win for the Democratic presidential candidate is likely to see the US re-engaging with the world, after four years of backing away under Donald Trump, that is not necessarily good news for China, the experts say.

Pang Zhongying, an international relations professor at Ocean University in Qingdao, said the rivalry between China, which spans a host of issues, could become even more intense.

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Under Barack Obama, the US sought to contain China through its pivot to Asia policy and international groupings like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

But under Trump, the US withdrew from the TPP, leaving the remaining partners to negotiate the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership as a replacement.

“The challenges to China under a Biden presidency may even be more serious,” he said.

While there have been concerns about Washington’s commitment to Asia under Trump, in recent weeks, both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper have visited the region as tensions between China and America on issues like the South China Sea have threatened to boil over.

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Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and policy adviser said he expected Biden to be even more assertive towards China but practical on global issues.

“I think he is going to approach international affairs as a pragmatist,” he said. “I think he will make sure that US policy in the region is as multilateral as possible.”

But Biden would also have plenty of challenges to deal with at home, Heydarian said.

“He is going to be a diminished president, and at the same time a crisis president. He is going to deal with a public health crisis as Covid cases surge to a new high, and the US is facing the worst economic contraction for years,” he said.

Kunihiko Miyake, a foreign policy adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, said the friction between the US and China meant Washington would need Tokyo more than ever, regardless of who won the presidential election.

“US relations with Japan and East Asian policies are likely to become relatively more important” as China became more powerful, he said.

The friction between Beijing and Washington would not dissipate under a new president, because Democrats and Republicans agreed that China was America’s main strategic rival, he added.

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Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said the US was more likely to engage with its allies under Biden.

“This will create pressure on China in terms of containment and isolation,” he said. “The new administration and America’s allies will be motivated to close the gap that has grown between them over the past four years.”

According to several Beijing-based Asian diplomats, most nations in the region are keen not to upset either China or the US, so have been watching the presidential election closely.

“We want to be able to get along with both,” said a diplomat who asked not to be named.

“No matter who wins the election, the last thing we want [for the next US administration] is for the two superpowers to go to war over Taiwan or the South China Sea,” said another, who also declined to give his name.

“We certainly don’t want to be caught in the crossfire or forced to pick a side.”

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu, Catherine Wong and Bloomberg

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