11 November 2020
Asia’s summit season starts this week amid some likely distraction in regional diplomatic circles caused by the US presidential election.
As the summits are being held online due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, officials have had greater access to each other to prepare for the summits. On the other hand, leaders won’t have the opportunity for impromptu casual meetings, where the real business of these gatherings is often conducted.
The agenda includes the eighteen-member East Asian Summit and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, both scheduled for this week, and a meeting of the twenty-one members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation on 20 November.
Consistent participation in these meetings by the future Biden administration would be a key step towards greater US engagement in the region.
In the meantime, it is likely that China will use the events over the next fortnight to boost its regional influence while the United States is focused on the election aftermath.
For Australia, caught between its strategic alliance with the United States and its trade partnership with China, these meetings are more important than ever. They provide crucial platforms for building relationships with like-minded countries to manage tensions between the two superpowers.
This Sunday, fifteen Asia-Pacific leaders, including Scott Morrison, Xi Jinping and Yoshihide Suga, plan to finalise the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, although discussions about how to manage India’s decision to withdraw from this trade agreement are ongoing.
The election of Joe Biden has prompted much debate about how the forty-sixth US president will split his time between domestic and foreign affairs.
Biden has considerable international relations experience but is expected to concentrate on pressing domestic issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racism and financial imbalances. He has pledged to unify the country after the divisive Trump years.
But his domestic power may be constrained. The Democratic Party failed to increase its numbers in the House of Representatives and is unlikely to win a Senate majority. Its results at the state level were also worse than expected.
US presidents have greater freedom to act unilaterally on the world stage than at home. This may encourage Biden to focus on foreign affairs, even though the implementation of policies in areas like climate change and trade will ultimately require domestic legislation.
As the Australian government is counting on a Biden-led United States being a more reliable ally in the Indo-Pacific and more predictable in its dealings with international organisations, it will likely welcome any increased international engagement from the new administration.
But a president who acts on the global stage simply because he is frustrated by domestic constraints may not be a reliable ally in the longer term.
While Joe Biden’s election has generally been welcomed by foreign leaders around the world, the positive responses from Asia may mask uncertainties about the change.
Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, were quick to congratulate Biden, despite there being a common perception in their conservative parties that Republican presidents are easier to work with.
Suga’s predecessor, Shinzō Abe, had a relatively close relationship with Donald Trump, managing to reduce tensions over trade and US bases in Japan. While the United States will be a more consistent diplomatic partner under Biden, there is uncertainty in Japan about how his administration will handle China and trade policy.
Modi and Trump, fellow strongmen and showmen, also struck up a strong relationship. Indians may be enthusiastic about vice-president-elect Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, but Modi’s government will be concerned that Democrats could place greater focus on human rights issues.
Meanwhile, the top leadership of China has made no comment on the election outcome, although state-controlled media coverage has been mildly positive. Despite Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, Xi Jinping might have preferred a Trump victory because that would have further damaged the United States’ international standing.
The Australian government feels it managed the Trump presidency quite well, avoiding trade sanctions and securing a continuing refugee deal. But it now looks forward to greater consistency from the new administration.