If those who predict an ideological cold war are correct, then we stand at the dawn of an open, intense clash between the United States and China over democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Should Donald Trump make an improbable comeback and win reelection in November, the US side is bound to remain incoherent and unable to rally other countries behind it. Since he became president in January 2017, the US vision has been blurred; policies have remained muddled. The only way to make sense of the values clash ahead is to assume a new US leader.
Should Joe Biden become president, how will US policy change on human rights in China, North Korea, and the Indo-Pacific region in general? Since the Democrats held the presidency, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Xi Jinping’s greater authoritarianism, and anti-democratic backtracking in some states have roiled the region. Donald Trump’s response has downplayed human rights, notably with North Korea and with China until 2020. Democrats have become driven by domestic issues such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter, indicating a high priority for human rights. Critiques of Trump extend to his handling of international rights, but specific polices have yet to be stated.
There is potential for contradictory pressures. On the one hand, pragmatism is desired after the chaotic, willful approach of Trump, often ignoring coordination with allies and tradeoffs to get results. On the other, values are sought after an interim of valueless leadership without a vision for rallying countries behind a principled approach. Foreign policy is unlikely to unite the varied forces in the party, although Biden is an internationalist with a history of deep interest in it.
Biden is a long-standing, staunch defender of the liberal, international order. In Foreign Affairs, on January 23, he wrote, “Putin wants to tell himself, and anyone else he can dupe into believing him, that the liberal idea is ‘obsolete.’ But he does so because he is afraid of its power. No army on earth can match the way the electric idea of liberty passes freely from person to person, jumps borders, transcends languages and cultures and supercharges communities of ordinary citizens into activists and organizers and change agents.” On China, he stated on August 5, “On every relevant metric since Trump took office, Beijing’s position is stronger and America’s is weaker. The United States needs a president who has a record of standing up to Beijing and getting results. … I’ll rally our allies to set the rules of the road and push back on Beijing’s aggressive and predatory behavior.” In his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech on August 20, Biden said little about foreign policy, but he vowed to guide the country out of darkness, putting character and values front and center. Saying that American democracy hangs in the balance, he implied the liberal word order does too.
With Kamala Harris on the ticket, the US may be poised for a soft power boom. Harris is expected to be a voice for values in foreign as well as domestic policy. On Twitter on February 5 she asserted, “Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel. These issues aren’t only civil rights — they’re also a matter of national security. We have to deal with that.” There is new pushback against “sharp power,” which Russia has used most vigorously. On August 1, she elaborated before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Russia not only attacked one of our most sacred democratic values, which is a free and fair election, but also, I believe, our very American identity. … [T]hey manipulated us and they are an adversary and they provoked us and they tried to turn us against each other.” Defending American identity, she is unlikely to be limited to attacks against Russia, particularly with China regarded as the more serious challenger.
Before attempting an overview of a Biden approach to human rights in the Indo-Pacific, let us consider the prospects country-by-country, putting China first as the case of greatest priority. In late August, there is no guarantee that Biden will defeat Trump, but for those looking ahead, to focus on Trump 2.0 has much less payoff than to anticipate a sharp turnabout led by Joe Biden.
Although the chance of compromise agreements rises with a president not obsessed with trade deficits, they would be likely to resemble deals with the Soviet Union, viewed as having little spillover toward resolving differences over human rights issues. While Trump was prone to link all aspects of the relationship to the state of his personal bond with Xi Jinping, downplaying any problematic arena whenever he touted a “bromance,” Biden is apt to compartmentalize trade, security, human rights, etc. All would be important as part of a multilateral agenda with allies. Pursuit of a visionary liberal order would not be put on hold for negotiations to find common ground. There is reason why many in China prefer the economic costs of Trump’s policies with a grand bargain possible than the widespread Democratic view that China’s challenge is primarily neither economic nor military. Their platform affirms, “Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of the Chinese government.”1 Xi Jinping’s recent policies toward Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and targets of purges all have captured the spotlight for Democrats.2
The Cold War bipartisan precedent often attacked by right-wing Republicans but accepted by its presidents, at least prior to Ronald Reagan (who changed course by 1986) was to prioritize talks aimed at peaceful coexistence or détente, while sparing little effort to sustain the ideological competition. Biden could be expected to press China and draw other leaders behind him on the four sensitive “core interests” of China: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. If Xi Jinping were to raise tensions further on any of these, especially Taiwan, the US response would include an intensified ideological clash. Although the speeches in 2019-20 of Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo did bring to the surface the beginnings of an ideological cold war, Trump did little to articulate this. Encouraged by congressional voices in both parties (Republicans would feel liberated to blame a Democratic president again for being soft), Biden would speak clearly.
It is Xi Jinping’s impatience to achieve Sinocentric ambitions that would drive Biden to respond. “Wolf warrior” foreign policy, fueled by Netizens and the Global Times already aroused by Xi’s aggressiveness, is not likely to recede in the face of a dual approach of pragmatic diplomacy and reassertion of US ideology. Xi’s partners—Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin—are likely to do things to test Sino-US relations, furthering the forces of polarization. Trump after a brief time in 2017 of playing the “human rights card” against Kim rejected notions of bipolarity. A Democratic leader would not be prone to do the same, nor would Xi if the US turned this way.
Trump turned on a dime in March 2018 from voicing outrage about North Korea’s violations of basic human rights (Trump’s rare articulation of such concerns against any country) to silence or even acquiescence when he imagined he could strike a deal on denuclearization with Kim Jong-un. Biden would, no doubt, prioritize denuclearization too, but that is not really on the table. For an arms control agreement, should talks resume with denuclearization the supposed objective, Biden would be unlikely to squander US credibility as the defender of the oppressed.
Standing squarely behind the human rights of the North Korean people, Biden would make the US more credible as a defender of the liberal international order. Japan would be the first to welcome this, although South Korean progressives would not, US-ROK relations since 2018 have dangled by a thread around the myth that they share a strategy for diplomacy with the North. That would be shattered by the end of Trump’s pretenses and the return to normalcy based on the facts of the situation. Kim Jong-un’s relative patience in 2020 is also unlikely to continue. If Trump’s demands for huge increases in host-nation support were a source of tension, Biden’s reorientation of US foreign policy would be even more so, given the attitudes of Moon Jae-in.
US recommitment to multilateralism would also pose problems for US-ROK relations. Although there have been tensions over Washington’s efforts to draw Seoul into the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, this vision has remained vague without a collective framework. Enter the Democrats, eager to put principles and values in the forefront, and Moon’s reticence would be a bigger concern. Obama’s efforts in 2014-15 to boost ROK-Japan relations would be in Biden’s memory, especially considering that the two closest US allies in the region are critical to actual multilateralism. While Japanese leaders have traditionally been pro-Republicans, this time they might reconsider, and South Korea’s progressive leadership may be the ones who rue the shift.
Tokyo and Seoul have proceeded from the assumption that Russo-US relations and behavior such as the poisoning of Navalny is irrelevant to Russia’s value as a partner in Asia. No human rights concerns about Russia have deterred Abe or Moon from pursuing Putin. Trump did not have reason to object. Biden would have more cause to build a consensus against the state that interfered in the US elections to help elect Trump and continues to brazenly thwart the values deemed essential for not only the liberal world order but also for peaceful coexistence. Under Obama, Abe’s pursuit of Putin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and shadow war in eastern Ukraine strained relations. With Putin more assertive in Asia of late, it may be difficult for the leaders in Seoul and Tokyo to remain aloof, including on matters of human rights.
Seoul has stayed on the sidelines, approaching Asia’s southern tier with its own NNS bereft of values that could complicate ties to China. Tokyo has supported values in the abstract without letting then get in the way of bilateral ties with countries challenging democratic principles, In the Trump era there has been no effort to rally countries behind values apart from “freedom of navigation” and recent adoption of Taiwan’s democracy as a tool against China. Biden’s interest in regionalism would likely put more pressure on allies to join forces. Modi’s India could pose a problem since it is both the western anchor of FOIP and a recent human rights transgressor. As a senator, Kamala Harris (of Indian descent) has been critical of Modi’s policies, Biden’s stance remains unclear, complicating how he would replace FOIP with a consistent regional approach.
All of the sources of heightened US concern around China’s borders are becoming more volatile, not primarily due to US behavior but with the likelihood they will change US behavior. Biden can be expected to take a more principled attitude: to Taiwan, which Trump could abandon if he got the right deal from Xi Jinping on trade, suggests John Bolton;3 on Hong Kong, about which he appears to care little; on the South China Sea, which requires the sort of serious multilateral diplomacy with hedging states of no interest to Trump; and, of course, on Russia, which could do no wrong in Trump’s eyes. Rather than each of these issues being viewed in isolation, Biden can be expected to renew policy planning, encouragement of the security and intelligence community to present policy options, and an overall framework for facing an ideological challenge, not only a security one. A personalized, ad hoc approach would not survive in a Biden administration.
International human rights would regain prominence in 2021 by both the impact of the Biden administration as a model and advocate and the policies introduced to give weight to what has been called the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” but could be renamed. Should Trump leave office, his legacy cannot be expected to endure in foreign policy, although bipartisan recognition of some rising challenges will suggest some continuities, such as a harsher approach to China. A major discontinuity would be the priority given to voicing a grand strategy and clarifying what connects the various strands of US policy across the Indo-Pacific. Biden would have a team of experts to guide his choices, abruptly transforming how the US prepares for regional diplomacy.
Multilateralism in Asia starts with the core alliances with Japan and South Korea. It is difficult to imagine Biden bypassing this triangle in striving for a coherent regional strategy replete with values. His administration can expect to find such triangularity a foreboding challenge, Moon Jae-in would be averse to reviving values in facing North Korea, highlighting shared vales with Japan, and endorsing a values agenda suspected of antagonizing China. Abe too may fear being drawn into a new history understanding with South Korea, undercutting his China diplomacy, or putting more teeth in his watered-down FOIP. While a general US vision could be introduced, it cannot gain credibility without prioritizing the triangle with Tokyo and Seoul in this framework.