The Great Reset

Biden must listen to Asia, avoid dividing region: Singapore's former US ambassadors

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SINGAPORE - It's a very different Asia that US President-elect Joe Biden will face when he assumes office, and the incoming leader of the world superpower must be prepared to consult the region on its perspectives and listen to its views.

This was the message that veteran diplomat and former Singapore ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee had for Mr Biden and his administration, which she shared at The Straits Times' inaugural Geopolitical Reset 2021 webinar on Thursday (Nov 19). Panellists on the forum included Prof Chan's fellow veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, also a former Singapore ambassador to the US.

The two diplomatic heavyweights - both ambassadors-at-large with Singapore's foreign ministry but speaking in their personal capacity - discussed how the US under Mr Biden is likely to manage its relationships in Asia in areas including trade, technology and political ideologies. They were joined by ST's US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh and Beijing-based global affairs correspondent Benjamin Kang Lim, as well as moderator, associate editor Vikram Khanna.

"I want to tell President Biden that when you return… you will find a very different Asia. In the last four years, Asia has changed," Prof Chan said, adding that Asian nations had since developed a greater sense of agency and belief that they can shape their own future.

"(Countries in Asia) have taken a lot of initiatives in the absence of American leadership. And they (Mr Biden's team) should bear that in mind. So they should come to the region, but they should consult and listen."

Prof Koh, who is also rector of Tembusu College under the National University of Singapore, urged Mr Biden's team to prioritise pragmatism over ideology in their policies towards Asia, lest they be doomed to failure.

"Every American administration… must uphold the values of democracy and human rights. But I hope that in your formulation and execution of policy towards Asia, you will allow realism, pragmatism and wisdom to prevail over ideology," he said. "Any attempt by the Biden administration to divide Asia and to form an anti-China coalition will fail, and it will not be welcome."

(From left) Veteran diplomat and former Singapore ambassadors to the United States Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee, and The Straits Times Associate Editor Vikram Khanna on Nov 19, 2020. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

A return to structure and stability

Both ambassadors agreed that the Biden administration will be an improvement for US-Asia ties, ushering in a period of greater predictability, stability, professionalism and structure for the region than it has been under Mr Trump.

America under Mr Biden is set to re-embrace multilateralism and look once more towards strengthening alliances around the world, they said, with the president-elect pledging to rejoin the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate accord upon taking office, both of which Mr Trump has walked away from.

Mr Biden or his vice-president-elect Kamala Harris might attend the next Asean summit, elevating the importance of the regional body and South-east Asia to US policy, as former president Barack Obama did, Prof Koh said.

But with regard to US-China ties - America's defining relationship in Asia - Mr Biden would find it very difficult to reverse the downward course, given extremely negative opinions about China in the US public, political and economic spheres.

"My own prediction is that Biden will end Trump's 'cold war' against China, but he will not be able to bring the relationship back to what it was during the Obama administration," Prof Koh said. "The 'cold war' will be replaced by a 'cold peace'... in which the two countries don't see each other as enemies, so they are at peace with each other, but there's no warmth in the relationship, because there's a deficit of strategic trust."

US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh agreed: "Biden's advisers... are talking about competition without catastrophe…. There is a feeling that the US-China competition has gotten out of hand."

The issue of the Trump-imposed import tariffs on China will probably come into greater focus in the second half of 2021, but lifting them may require "targeted reciprocity" in which China might have to concede something in exchange, Prof Chan said.

US should compete on capability

Beijing-based global affairs correspondent Benjamin Lim Kang opined that if Mr Biden put a halt to Washington's attempts to decouple the US and China economies, Beijing might also modify its stance on its own "dual circulation" policy - a strategic, defensive move towards self-sufficiency in trade and technology in response to US aggression under Mr Trump.

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Among items on Beijing's wish list for the Biden administration, Mr Lim said, includes an end to the Sino-US "tech war", in which Mr Trump has imposed bans, sanctions and export controls to disrupt Chinese technological advancement, purportedly over national security concerns.

The best way for America to compete with China for global tech supremacy - a sphere of strategic importance to both powers - is to strengthen its own research capability, Prof Chan said, adding that Mr Biden himself had previously made this point.

"The United States has not funded R&D in the way it used to. (Mr Biden) talks of that. You (should aim to) beat China because your technology is superior, your research is superior. And I think that is the way to go," said the veteran diplomat who also chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

On global trade, Prof Koh said withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a proposed trade pact among 12 countries on both sides of the Pacific, excluding China - was one of Mr Trump's biggest blunders.

After the US withdrawal, the pact was revised to become the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) now in effect, but Washington is unlikely to rejoin it even under Mr Biden, he said.

The signing this month of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) among 15 Asia-Pacific nations including China may put new pressure on Mr Biden to engage more in trade with the region, but even then, he would face substantial obstacles to agree any multilateral trade pact.

"American politicians have succeeded in demonising free trade and the TPP, so much so that... the political cost for Joe Biden to join CPTPP is too high and it would not get through Congress," Prof Koh said. "The American leadership... should wake up. Do you want to be alone in the world, or do you want to be... leading the world? That's the choice for the people in Washington."

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Some tensions will remain

Although a Biden presidency may ease severely strained Sino-US ties, some areas of tension have already become a reality unlikely to be reversed, such as the US' freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in the South China Sea, according to Prof Chan.

Those operations in the disputed waters - which involve the US Navy sailing through to reinforce internationally recognised freedoms despite various countries' competing claims - are now routine exercises, she said.

Waters and islands in the South China Sea are claimed by several Asian nations including China, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Beijing lays claim to most of the contested waters, citing its historical maritime rights within what it calls the "nine-dash line".

"When Trump took a strong stance on the South China Sea, there was some reaction from the claimants… Regional countries also took a stronger stance (against Beijing's claims there)," Prof Chan said, adding that Mr Biden's team would have noted that and is likely to continue its vigilance in the waters though they are unlikely to "be as provocative as Trump".

The issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong, too, will persist, given strong bipartisan support in the US to ensure freedoms in both economies are protected, the two ambassadors said.

Don't peddle 'democracy'

Washington's resolve to shield self-ruled Taiwan from perceived threats from Beijing would be even stronger under a Democratic president given the party's core beliefs in upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Prof Koh said.

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But he warned against Mr Biden's professed intention to host a global summit for democracy, given differing interpretations of what democracy means and how such a forum might risk ostracising some US allies like communist Vietnam.

"You can, without using the word 'democracy', champion good governance or rule of law or inclusive growth... instead of choosing a theme where you exclude half your friends," Prof Koh said. "It's (also) a matter of priority. In the current world, what is the most important challenge the world faces? It's Covid-19, and to prepare ourselves for a future pandemic."

Prof Chan had this advice for a Biden presidency looking to uphold democracy abroad: "America can show that it stands for democracy, good governance and human rights in other ways. Call out the actions when you see (that they) are wrong, which was something the Trump administration did not do in the last four years."

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