The Great Reset

What Biden means for Asia: Excerpts from ST's webinar with Tommy Koh, Chan Heng Chee

(From left) Professor Tommy Koh and Ambassador-at-Large Prof Chan Heng Chee at the inaugural ST Reset 2021 webinar on Nov 19, 2020. ST PHOTO: BEMJAMIN SEETOR

Ties between the United States and Asia are set to improve under US President-elect Joe Biden, ushering in a period of greater predictability and stability for the region, according to Singapore's veteran diplomats Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee.

They were speaking at ST's webinar, Geopolitical Reset 2021, part of a series that aims to help readers make sense of what might lie ahead.

The Straits Times' United States bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh and Beijing-based global affairs correspondent Benjamin Kang Lim were part of the panel as well, with associate editor Vikram Khanna moderating the session.

Here are some excerpts from Thursday's webinar.

What do you anticipate will be the Biden administration's top foreign policy priorities?

Prof Chan Heng Chee: "If you read everything that Biden has written or said, he hasn't banged up China that much. There's not much he can do but he hasn't added oil to the fire. So I think you will see some nuancing. I think the decibels will be toned down. And that's plenty. The world is rooting for that.

Prof Chan: It was thought that because the United States came out so strongly on the South China Sea, the claimants like Malaysia, Vietnam took a stronger stance... So I would say the United States will continue with its vigilance in the South China Sea, but will not be as provocative as President Trump.

Prof Tommy Koh: Biden will elevate, as Obama did, the importance of South-east Asia and Asean to US policy. And I expect either President-elect Biden or Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris to attend the annual Asean summit and related summit.

Remote video URL

How do you foresee China will respond?

Mr Nirmal Ghosh: The idea is this sort of cooperative rivalry, competition without catastrophe, where the United States works, of course, with allies and partners, advancing all its interests, network, security, all these things, but also puts together the conventional architecture of diplomacy with China, which is aside from trade...

One of them is cooperation on climate change, cooperation on health and pandemics, cooperation on perhaps on transnational organised crime, fentanyl issue, the opioid. Opioids in America is a massive crisis.

So the idea is, and this is an aspiration, to carve out areas where we they can work together, while at the same time maintaining this strategic competition. And there is a consensus, bipartisan consensus in Washington DC in the security community that China is the strategic threat. There's almost no doubt about that. But it's ambitious for them to think that they can actually cooperate in some areas. But if China is willing to do the same, then I think that's a path forward.

Remote video URL
Remote video URL

Mr Benjamin Kang Lim: Party insiders that the Straits Times has spoken to think there will be more of the same way, like the biggest difference is Biden will be reasonable, rational and respectful. Other insiders are cautiously optimistic that some differences may be ironed out. But it'll be difficult for Biden to do an aboutface overnight. There is a consensus in Congress and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans that China is a competitor, it's not an adversary.

But it will be worth noting that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who belatedly congratulated Biden on Nov 13. China was not being disrespectful. And it's not counting on Trump to bounce back or hang on. But I think China was playing it safe.

Do you think Biden's team will lift the existing trade tariffs on China?

Prof Koh: The Trump administration appeared to want to decouple the two economies. It would be extremely painful to both sides and makes no economic sense. I expect the Biden administration to stop this, to stop the attempt to decouple the two economy. There are trade problems between them for sure, but these can be settled bilaterally through negotiation or through WTO. They need not be turned into a national strategic issue.

Prof Koh: I'm not sure whether a Biden administration will (end the tech war), because both parties in America know the future of the world will depend on who will lead these future technology, high technologies of the world. So they see the competition for technology dominant between the two country as having strategic value. That has changed the game, you know. So I can't make a prediction on what Biden will do because the nature of the game has changed. It's not just economic. It has strategic value.

Prof Chan: The United States and China at this point, there's an opportunity... they may not reset, but they may rethink. And you can go down a slightly different pathway, though I fully agree with what everyone has said that it's very hard for the United States to walk away from this firm stance... I sort of feel right now, it's very hard for the United States to do any economic transaction or activity with China without thinking about national security.

How will the Biden administration approach the Taiwan issue?

Prof Chan: At one point, I thought, is the Trump administration trying to provoke a conflict over Taiwan? It's sending secretaries, Cabinet secretaries to Taiwan. The package that they are offering - the arms package - is more than any other administration would have offered. So are they provoking China? I think that's one place where you will find the decibels lowered, the temperature lowered.

Remote video URL

What about Hong Kong?

Prof Koh: There will be an impasse. I think that neither side has room to give away. For the Chinese, it's a sovereignty issue. They have every right under their Constitution (to introduce) this national security law in Hong Kong. The British said the Chinese have broken their treaty commitment, the Chinese don't agree. The US sees this as an oppression of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. So there's an impasse, they will never agree. On this, the best we can expect is an agreement to disagree.

Prof Chan: I don't think Joe Biden will take Hong Kong off the table. How he will just deal with Hong Kong and to impress on China, that is an important issue, it will be something the Biden administration will work at, and they'll look for a way. But remember, Biden, President Biden, the Democrats stand for democracy and human rights. They don't want to be seen on the retreat because they want a good relationship with China. So they will hold to that stance. So watch that space, and watch the Uighurs.

What do you make of US ambitions to export democracy?

Prof Chan: The Biden administration will want to emphasise democracy, because... America has felt that democracy has been decaying in the last four years... But it's not a good idea to sort of wave this flag of democracy in everyone's face. Countries have different histories and traditions.

Mr Ghosh: We should not expect any reversal from the Joe Biden administration on China. I think the word to use is a sort of refinement or moderation, and I think what was seen by China as provocative, in the terms of Taiwan and high-level visits, that will cease, it's not going to happen. So getting to democracy, there is democracy, exporting democracy appeals to the general public for different reasons. Conservatives see it as important to sort of hold back sort of the bogey of communism, which is still very much alive today; Democrats like it because, ideologically, they believe in it; and in the Washington elites as well, there is a general consensus that exporting democracy is a good thing.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.