Biden: Reclaiming US credibility
Philippine-US relations under the new Biden presidency will be shaped by America’s foreign policy on China in East Asia, most especially the South China Sea issue. Unlike the hawkish Trump administration, moderation and predictability may define Biden’s foreign policy on Beijing. But this doesn’t mean it will be less tough on issues that Washington sees as a threat to US primacy, or that it will allow China to have free rein.
At the outset, Joe Biden is expected to overturn Trump’s wholesale withdrawal from key global institutions and multilateral agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, three major arms control pacts, and UN special agencies. In rescinding Trump’s “America First” mantra, Biden will take a multilateralist tack to put America back at “the head of the table,” as the new president had pledged.
In East Asia, the Biden foreign policy team will stabilize an alliance system that was shaken by Trump’s mishandling of Japan and South Korea, its two key allies, when it threatened trade sanctions and demanded payments for US facilities. Similarly, Philippine-US defense ties endured a decrease in joint exercises and President Duterte’s threats to scuttle the pivotal Visiting Forces Agreement. That defense partnership will likely receive a shot in the arm with the United States’ recent hint to reform the cold-war Mutual Defense Treaty to remove Philippine defense officials’ doubts about its deterrent effect on Chinese irredentism in the South China Sea.
It will be a folly, however, to see Biden drifting from a foreign policy that stands for America’s geopolitical interests and hegemony in the region. The strategic containment of China, backed by an arc of alliances and military hubs, is a bipartisan consensus in the US Congress. Bipartisan support is behind US naval operations in the South China Sea as well as in the East China Sea and the Taiwan Straits. These operations will be sustained under Biden, whose defense team is led by consultants to powerful arms contractors who profit from tensions and wars across the world.
On this note, America’s one-sided defense partnership with the Philippines will remain. The May 2022 elections will be closely watched to make sure that
Mr. Duterte’s successor is friendly to Washington.
Unfortunately for Biden, however, the chips are down, making the task of retrieving US global leadership more daunting. Ravaged by the pandemic, its economy is in disarray and unemployment is at an all-time high. The Trump loyalists’ siege on the Capitol accentuated a deep political chasm that portends of more unrest fed by rightist supremacy, racism, and anti-immigration. Western observers concede that America has lost its credibility in the world. Its own allies are increasingly skeptical about the world hegemon’s stability, rationality, and capacity to lead.
The United States must begin to accept a new world no longer dominated by a unipolar power, as seen in the rise of China as well as Russia, Iran, India, and other Asian countries. Military power has lost its potency in coercing countries to come to America’s heel. For this reason, the Biden administration should come to terms with China’s economic success and diplomacy—indeed, of its institutional stability that made pandemic control possible.
Managed correctly, Biden’s multilateralist approach can be a step in the right direction. No less than its own allies like Germany and France have long taken the multilateralist train in easing tensions, forging calibrated cooperation with Russia and other countries, preserving global institutions like the United Nations, and fighting the pandemic. Biden should welcome China’s recent challenge to reset the two countries’ ties by initially cooperating on COVID-19 response, economic recovery, and climate change.
These confidence-building measures may augur well toward stopping the momentum of a new cold war ignited by Trump, as well as easing further tensions in the South China Sea. Continued naval operations and military structures in the South China Sea should not stop the two major powers from engaging in diplomacy and military dialogues. Opting for peace and development, countries in the region are refusing to be drawn into a protracted tension between the two countries.
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Bobby M. Tuazon teaches at the University of the Philippines Manila and is Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) director for policy studies.
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