When U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, he will assume responsibility for American foreign policy — and perhaps no region in the world will be more crucial than Asia. In addition to navigating the increasingly fraught U.S. relationship with China, the Biden administration will also face challenges including North Korean nuclear brinkmanship and tensions along the India-China border.
Biden has pledged to restore America’s traditional role in Asia following the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. But reverting to the status quo ante won’t be easy.
“When President Biden goes to the Asia-Pacific now, he’ll find [the region] to be different,” said Chan Heng Chee, former Singaporean ambassador to the United States and current Asia Society co-chair. “During [the previous administration], in the absence of the U.S. — which has not taken up leadership in the last four years — many small-and-medium sized countries now feel that they have a sense of agency. They can take action, form coalitions, and do things.”
Chan participated in a virtual panel discussion organized by Asia Society that examined President-elect Biden’s to-do list in Asia. Vali Nasr, former dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that a resumption of calm and predictability would reassure allies in the region — but that residue from the Trump years will linger.
“This snapback to where the United States was isn’t realistic for a number of reasons,” he said. “Trust and credibility take a long time to build. They’re very easy to shatter.” Trump’s refusal to concede the election and initiate the transfer of power to Biden presents a further challenge to the incoming administration, said Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Cutler, a longtime official in the office of the U.S. trade representative, served in government during four presidential transitions.
“What [the Biden team] needs to do is to start interfacing with current people in government agencies to find out what’s on their mind, to learn about personnel issues, and to find out what decisions need to be made in the first 100 days,” she said.