Biden eyes a tougher regional presence
By:Bobby M. Tuazon - @inquirerdotnet
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:05 AM October 18, 2020

A possible Joe Biden presidency in the Nov. 3 American elections will likely usher in a tougher and preemptive US role in the Philippines and the region. Whether a Biden administration will lead to the resolution of contentious issues between the two countries is a matter where a reading of the presumptive president’s foreign policy may find an answer.

Donald Trump’s transactional, divisive, and “America First” foreign policy has isolated the United States from the world, which is gradually embracing multilateralism and globalism. In successive diplomatic retreats, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris climate accord, 2015 Iran nuclear deal, UN Human Rights Council, International Criminal Court, and the World Health Organization.

Clashing with the World Trade Organization, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and European Union, he mounted a new cold war on China through a belligerent trade and technology war with immigration and economic sanctions. Trump’s narcissistic and white supremacist transgressions have enraged colored peoples and put them at risk of racist attacks in the United States and elsewhere.

In his presidential bid, Biden vows to be internationalist and multilateralist by reversing Trump’s isolationist policies and mending ties with US allies. Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, and for decades sat on the Senate foreign relations committee. As committee chair in 2002, Biden backed George W. Bush’s war on Iraq that was framed by a fake narrative of weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein.

Biden’s multilateralism, however, betrays an American hegemonic perspective. Proof is his call for revitalizing US Pacific power and asserting its superiority in an intensifying power feud with China and Russia.

The powerful military-industrial complex and the Israeli lobby are well-represented in Biden’s campaign team and future Cabinet. Among them: chief foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken, whose WestExec Advisors firm has close ties with arms contractors; Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official now being eyed as defense chief, who sits on the board of spy contractor Booz Allen Hamilton; and Avril Haines, former CIA deputy director, a hardliner on North Korea. Farooq Mitha, adviser on Muslim affairs, is with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israeli lobby known for deep Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian activity.

While Biden promises to engage Beijing in “smart diplomacy,” the presence of China hawks in his circle unveils an unyielding track on China. Last June, Flournoy wrote that the United States should be able “to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea” in a war with Beijing. Biden himself attacked Trump for being soft on China’s “infringement” of Hong Kong’s autonomy as well as on Xinjiang and Taiwan. He wants stronger defense alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia to show Beijing that Washington “won’t back down.”

Trump leaves the Pentagon and state department to contest China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea through freedom of navigation operations. But Biden will have his hands on deck in this new battleground. Perked up by a Biden pledge of an increased military budget, half of it for arms contractors, his China hawks will boost Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and encirclement strategy to ensure US maritime supremacy in the region.

In the Philippines, Biden’s foreign policy plan intersects with political forces, including defense and foreign affairs honchos, who want defense ties with the United States back on track as a deterrent to China. With less than two years to go, President Duterte has pushed back his abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. His successor may have to work on categorical assurances from the United States on its commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Pact.

Right now, however, Asean is finalizing with Beijing a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. The regional group sees China as a key economic partner and loathe being locked in the US-China rivalry. Biden’s plan for a proactive US military presence will be at loggerheads with Asean. The presumptive president should wake up to the reality that Asean countries, bound together as a regional group, are on the path of a new multipolar world.

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Bobby M. Tuazon, CenPEG director of policy studies, teaches at the University of the Philippines Manila.

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