Memo from Asia: America, Stay Tough with China

Dr. Rizal Ramli Former coordinating minister of maritime affairs for the Republic of Indonesia.

IO – There is much to celebrate about Joe Biden’s rise to power as leader of the free world.   He has already committed himself to making sure America rejoins the Paris climate agreement.   He  has  written  and talked at length about democratic backsliding, not just in his country but elsewhere, and he plans to host a global Summit for Democracy in an effort to rekindle the spirit of liberal politics and push back against the rising tide of authoritarianism, corruption and human rights abuses.

Unlike Donald Trump, President-elect Biden understands how multilateralism can be much more effective than a unilateral approach

in foreign policy, and one should be encouraged by the fact Biden intends to restore good relations with America’s allies with the objective of repairing the damage done during Trump’s presidency.

America’s long-standing allies in Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, will be looking forward to improved relations.  Under Trump, these key alliances came under unnecessary strain and must be repaired for Biden’s America to become a more effective player in the region.

Yet, there are concerns about a Biden presidency.  Tokyo and Seoul as well as members of ASEAN are worried that Biden, who views China as a strategic competitor rather than an existential threat, might go soft on Beijing.

While Trump’s abrasive style and lack of diplomacy was a cause of irritation for many Asian politicians, his no holds barred approach towards Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party was seen as a much needed and overdue antidote to Beijing’s adversarial and belligerent behavior towards its neighbors.  Although not said in public for fear of retribution, most of us in Asia have felt and complained in private quarters about the fact China’s leaders, even its diplomats, act too aggresively.

One good example of Asians applauding Trump is when he signed into  law  the  Hong  Kong  Human Rights and Democracy Act. Trump earned kudos not only for his standing up for the people of Hong Kong, but also when he took a hardliner stance on Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghurs.

Trump earned added respect when he punished China for its unfair trading practices and openly criticized the Chinese leadership for its hamhanded response when the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan. And we in Asia have warmly welcomed Trump and his defence chiefs for their deepening Washington’s military cooperation with countries throughout the Indo Pacific, as well as making a show of naval strength in the South China Sea to ensure the freedom of navigation in waters that are critical to the security of not only the entire region but also the rest of the world.

To be fair, Biden has been critical of China in recent years, even at one point calling Xi Jinping a “thug”. But rhetoric does not make for policy, and all of us in Asia are hoping America’s new president will surround himself with advisors who understand the harsh realities of China. In fact, we need Biden to continue Trump’s China policy and, preferably, double down.

Hopefully, Biden and his Asia hands will understand that trying diplomacy with Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, is a fool’s errand. For diplomacy to work, there must be two willing parties, but the truth is that Xi’s diplomats, aptly nicknamed wolf warriors for their hyper-aggressive style, are hardly interested in traditional diplomacy. To be sure, Biden might find some common areas of interest and room for cooperation, such as climate change and nonproliferation, but for the most part, Beijing has and will remain intransigent.

The new occupants of the White House should also understand and shape their Asia policy around the fact that while America is a Pacific power and has historically sought to exert influence in the region, Beijing is looking to emerge as the regional hegemon. Asia, including my own country of Indonesia, knows that Beijing also harbors territorial ambitions, of controlling its neighbors’ strategic waterways and critical infrastructure. We simply find these ambitions to be unacceptable.

Another harsh reality that Biden must grasp is that the threat coming from China is not purely military in nature. Rather, it is a new type of Cold War, pitting America against an adversary who is skillfully using money politics, influence peddling and cyber technologies to buy friends in high places, shape public opinion, steal intellectual property from corporations and classified information from goverments. Very simply, it is a war that will be won or lost without even a single bullet being fired or rocket launched.

Biden should therefore come to grips with the fact that Beijing is fighting this cold war on multiple dimensions. It is not just the visible threats that matter, but the less visible and no less dangerous threats such as Beijing buying politicians and cyber intrusions. Xi Jinping, when faced with criticism over human rights abuses of the Uyghurs or his Hong Kong policies, cries foul and complains we should not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. Yet the CPP has zero compunction when they bribe Asian politicians or steal classified information from our governments. These are threats that severely compromise the integrity of our politics, and ultimately our national security.

Asia can only hope that Biden looks back at Trump’s policies in Asia as a cue to the direction of his own policies for the next four years. Anything short of that would be disastrous.