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Biden and East Asia: The Company One Keeps

Frank Jannuzi(President and CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

As Americans go to the polls to choose their next President, nations around the world are turning their attention to how United States foreign policy might change if Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States next January.


Biden’s record suggests there will be at least a few areas of continuity with Trump, including a desire to end long-running conflicts in the Middle East and mounting skepticism about how a rising China will use its growing economic, military, and political clout in ways that might challenge U.S. interests. Indeed, the task of managing U.S.-China tensions seem likely to preoccupy whoever takes the presidential oath of office next January.


But despite these areas of congruence, Trump and Biden are very different people. Their foreign policies will reflect their divergent instincts and personal characteristics. Trump’s “America First” nationalist agenda matches his xenophobic, selfish, ego-driven narcissism and his lack of empathy. Trump places no apparent value on alliances, asking always, “what have you done for me lately?”  Trump attaches no special significance to promises, viewing them as fleeting transactions which can be discarded whenever they become inconvenient. And Trump, by his own account, is a “stable genius,” who knows more about any topic – from COVID-19 to the catapult launch system on a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – than the health professionals and naval engineers whose intelligence he disregards and denigrates. Trump denies the scientific evidence behind climate change, ignores well-documented Russian interference in U.S. internal affairs, thinks Kim Jong-un is his friend, retweets QANON conspiracy theories, and, according to his former national security adviser, refuses even to read his daily intelligence briefings.


By contrast, Biden’s relationship-driven life of public service has been marked by loyalty to friends and family, empathy for the less fortunate, curiosity, and an ability to listen to and work with those with whom he disagrees. In the realm of foreign policy, this translates first and foremost into a deep commitment to alliances. Biden will seek to repair relations with NATO and South Korea, and build on the close U.S.-Japan partnership in the Indo-Pacific. In contrast with Trump, Biden is also devoted to seeking the truth. He won’t limit his sources of information to those news outlets or advisers closely aligned with his world view. Biden has always surrounded himself by people who are true experts in their fields. He will listen to their guidance before reaching his own conclusions based on the best available evidence. That is why Biden has pledged to return to the Paris Climate Accords on day one – a commitment with broad-ranging implications for both foreign and domestic policies. It is also why a Biden administration would almost certainly resume diplomacy with Iran and also attempt to bolster global nonproliferation norms by engaging Russia, China, and North Korea in high level talks to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.


In sum, Biden’s foreign policy will be an outward manifestation of his inner self – a man shaped both by loss and renewal.  Those seeking to understand how Joseph R. Biden would govern should start by delving into his character.


Tragedy and Purpose


Just a few weeks before he had a chance to take his oath of office as the junior senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr. experienced a personal tragedy of enormous proportions. His wife Neilia and daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash. His two sons Beau and Hunter were badly injured. Biden, just turned 30, thought about quitting the Senate to care for his boys and rebuild his life. Deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and devoted to his family, Biden didn’t see how he could fulfil his obligations as a father and also serve the people of Delaware as a U.S. Senator.


Senator Mike Mansfield had other ideas.


Mansfield, then the Senate Majority Leader (a position he held from 1961-1977, the longest tenure in the history of the United States), counseled Biden that the Senate would be Biden’s family now…a community in which Biden would find support and comfort even as he worked through his own grief.  More than that, Mansfield took Biden under his wing, securing for the young Biden a coveted seat on the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Biden would ultimately spend 36 years. Mansfield also scheduled weekly meetings with Biden to check on his progress, share wisdom, and nurture Biden’s growing interest in international security affairs. Years later, Biden would recall with me that he thought Mansfield was supplying that level of tutelage to all of the freshmen Democrats, when in fact, it was a unique and unprecedented outreach by the Majority Leader to the young man from Wilmington.

Perhaps the two most important lesson Mansfield imparted to Joe Biden were these: alliances are valuable in the conduct of foreign policy, and don’t forget to reach across the aisle to seek partnerships, especially on foreign affairs. Mansfield served as a Marine in the Pacific in the 1920s in the decade leading up to the era historian Stephen E. Ambrose would describe as “America’s rise to globalism.” Mansfield understood the vast territory of the Asia-Pacific region, and the impossibility of the United States securing its interests if acting unilaterally. When he returned to the United States after a tour of duty in the Pacific, Mansfield (a high school dropout), fell in love, and at the urging of Maureen (who would later become his wife), went back to school, earning a B.A. and a Master’s degree at the University of Montana.  Mansfield wrote his Master’s thesis on U.S.-Korea diplomatic history, examining how the United States had failed to honor the commitments it had made to Korea, and underscoring the importance of forging lasting partnerships with like-minded nations if the United States hoped to ensure a peaceful, prosperous Asia-Pacific region. Mansfield’s first message to Biden: America is at its most effective when working in concert with like-minded countries, and no country is more valuable in this regard than is Japan. 


Mansfield’s second lesson to Biden was to seek support from Republicans wherever possible. Mansfield had learned this lesson from his struggle to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which faced passionate opposition from Southern Democrats. Requiring 67 votes to overcome the filibuster of Dixiecrats, Mansfield reached out to Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader) to secure the super-majorities needed to pass these two landmark civil rights bills. When confronted by his chief of staff Charles Ferris, who worried that Republicans would claim credit for passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Mansfield was characteristically humble and concise, saying, “Charlie, what are we trying to do? Pass a bill, or take CREDIT for passing a bill?”


Biden absorbed these two lessons from Mansfield: work wherever possible with partners abroad, and seek allies across the political aisle, especially on foreign policy.


Applying the Mansfield-Biden Lessons to Foreign Policy

When trying to divine how Biden will approach various challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, the best starting place is with Biden’s devotion to alliances and his commitment to bipartisanship in foreign affairs. Biden has said that "The most effective way" to meet the challenge from China "is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge" China’s "abusive behavior." We should expect a Biden Administration to reach out to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other key U.S. allies in Asia to forge a united front to encourage China to abide by international norms on security trade, and human rights. Rather than engaging China one-on-one, Biden would more likely reach out to like-minded nations to bring multilateral pressure on Beijing to respect intellectual property, end subsidies of state-owned enterprises, open closed markets, and eliminate non-tariff barriers to trade.


How might Biden work to rebuild and strengthen ties with allies and partners in Asia — namely Japan and South Korea — in a post-Trump world? He would begin by acknowledging the contributions U.S. allies have made to advance U.S. interests, whether by sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq (e.g. ROK, Australia, New Zealand) or providing essential logistics support for U.S. warfighters and direct contributions to anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden (e.g. Japan).  Rather than treat U.S. alliances as lucrative financial transactions, Biden would respect the United States’ allies as partners in a global effort to advance the norms of the liberal democratic order.


This fundamental respect for alliance partners would likely translate into expedited efforts by Biden to resolve the issue of Seoul’s financial support for the basing of U.S. forces in South Korea. The same spirit would apply to negotiations with Japan, not only for host nation support, but also for base realignment on Okinawa. President Biden would not treat these negotiations as opportunities to profit, but rather, as talks between friends on how best to fulfil mutual obligations and ensure close coordination on mutual interests.


As to the overall ideological framework for U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific, Biden is from the “realist” school of foreign policy. He harbors no illusions about China’s sometimes revisionist or irredentist instincts. But when it comes to the possibility of a new cold war, Biden advisers have said they don't want to see a race to the bottom.  The United States must find a way both to compete with China – for markets, for friends, for security partners – and to cooperate with China – especially on two issues of vital consequence: climate change and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Biden’s approach to China is likely, therefore, to fall somewhere between Trump – who is purely transactional, and could not care less about China’s domestic human rights abuses or its ambition to restore itself to a position of hegemony in East Asia – and the “Trump Administration” – which views China in zero-sum terms as a new Cold War  adversary attempting to overturn the international order and expel the United States from the Indo-Pacific region.


Managing Flashpoints, Especially North Korea


When it comes to the major flashpoints in the relationship -- Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, North Korea – Biden will employ a broad mix of tools, rather than using a hammer for every job. In some cases, I expect Biden would echo the muscular approach of Obama, sustaining freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and warning China against coercive measures designed to intimidate or bully Taiwan.  Biden would almost certainly starkly reiterate U.S. support for Japan’s sovereignty and declare any Chinese encroachment upon the Senkakus to be an event that would trigger the mutual security provisions of the U.S.-Japan alliance. On other issues less inflammatory issues, such as IPR protection, Biden would likely seek a consensus approach among key U.S. allies, including Japan, South Korea, and the member states of the EU, rather than standing alone. 


As for North Korea, Biden recently affirmed his intention both to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance and also to pursue “principled diplomacy” with the DPRK. Biden wrote in an editorial in Yonhap that he would stand with South Korea, “strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops." He promised to keep pressing toward North Korea's denuclearization through "principled diplomacy." He also recited the catch phrase of the Korea-U.S. alliance, "Katchi Kapshida," or "We Go Together."


The editorial was vintage Biden, recalling his deep personal commitment to alliances and his implicitly evoking his special relationship with former South Korea President Kim Dae-jung, who was not only a champion of South Korean democratization, but also the architect of the failed “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea.  "As president, I'll stand with South Korea,” Biden said in the article, titled "Hope for Our Better Future."  He continued, "I'll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.


In starkly personal terms, Biden recalled his 2013 visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the inter-Korean border.

"I will never forget standing less than 100 feet away from North Korea at the DMZ with my granddaughter, Finnegan, beside me. I felt the pain of division on the Korean Peninsula and the separation of families since the Korean War," he said. "It was more visceral, because earlier in the day, I had just laid the wreath at the War Memorial of Korea to honor the 36,574 American soldiers who died during war," he said, echoing the words of Republican Richard Armitage by saying that relations between the two countries were "forged in blood."


In his Yonhap op-ed, we see glimmers of how Biden would approach the United States’ key partners in Asia – from a position of mutual respect and appreciation for the contributions allies have made to U.S. interests. Biden praised South Korea's miraculous rise from the ashes of war to become, "a shining example of a flourishing democracy and economic powerhouse." He said the South has also been "a global leader in the fight against COVID-19; and a strong ally in the region, to advance our shared prosperity, values, and security, and to meet global challenges."


And in a rebuke to Trump’s anti-immigrant administration, Biden praised the 2 million Korean Americans in the U.S. for their, "innumerable" contributions, saying, "For more than a century, Korean Americans have made our country strong -- from the very first immigrants in Hawaii on January 13, 1903, to the rising entrepreneurs and business owners driving us forward now."


More Appreciation, and Higher Expectations


Trump complained recently during a rally in Tampa, Florida, "Our allies in many ways treat us worse than the enemy. The enemy, at least we have our guard up. Our allies, what they've done to us in terms of military protection and trade is disgraceful." A Biden administration will bring much greater U.S. appreciation for the role of U.S. allies as partners in promoting peace, prosperity, and security in Indo-Pacific. But it will also likely bring higher expectations for how those allies will shoulder their share of the burden for defending the rules-based liberal democratic international order. President Biden will not appreciate “free loaders” in Asia any more than Trump.  He will frown on those attempting to use America’s investments in peace and security to minimize their own contributions to advancing those objectives. In this, Biden will again draw on his own life and the lessons he has internalized: from those to whom much is given, much is expected.  Biden will set a high bar for his administration in the conduct of foreign policy, and will expect no less from the United States’ allies and friends across the Indo-Pacific.