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 The Straits Times' webinar, Geopolitical Reset 2021, part of a series that aims to help readers make sense of what might lie ahead.
Here are some excerpts from Thursday's webinar.
1. WHAT DO YOU ANTICIPATE WILL BE THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION'S TOP FOREIGN POLICY PRIORITIES?
Professor 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, 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 (Donald) Trump.
Professor Tommy Koh: Biden will elevate, as (then President Barack) 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.
2. 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 economies. There are trade problems between them for sure, but these can be settled bilaterally through negotiation or through WTO (World Trade Organisation). They need not be turned into a national strategic issue.
3. 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.
4. WHAT ABOUT HONG KONG?
Prof Koh: There will be an impasse. I think that neither side has room to give way. 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.
5. WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF U.S. 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.