Biden’s Asian report card
Since taking office in January 2021, the US President has faced numerous foreign policy challenges, including thorny problems in Asia. Duncan Bartlett takes stock of his performance
The chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a low point in Joe Biden’s presidency. Television cameras captured the horror of a bomb at Kabul airport, which killed 13 US military personnel and more than 170 Afghan civilians.
Afghanistan is the only state in the world to deny girls the right to a full education. There was a further appalling glimpse into how life in Afghanistan is deteriorating for women, when, in January 2023, Mursal Nabizada, an activist and former parliamentarian, was shot dead in Kabul.
‘Anyone can do anything to a woman,’ warns Ashley Jackson of the Centre on Armed Groups, an NGO based in Geneva.
The President of the General Assembly of the UN, Csaba Kőrösi, recently used a powerful speech to present a near apocalyptic picture of ordinary life in the Taliban-ruled nation, which he said has endured almost five decades of ‘relentless conflict’.
He told ambassadors in New York that as well as enduring disastrous humanitarian and human rights situations, the country is ‘awash with heroin and opium’.
‘Organised crime and terrorist organisations are thriving once again. Afghanistan is facing complex and interlinked challenges that the Taliban have shown they cannot – or will not – solve.’
Mr Kőrösi told the UN that there was ‘a moral and also a practical imperative for the international community to support an inclusive and sustainable peace in Afghanistan’.
Opinion polls suggest that Americans’ interest in Afghanistan has waned, as other issues crowd the headlines. However, there was a surge of support for President Biden when he announced that the jihadi leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had been killed in a drone strike in Kabul in the summer of 2022.
The White House has strongly condemned the regime’s crackdown on the movement calling for human rights and respect for women in Iran. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in November of 2022 that ‘the hundreds of protestors already killed at the hands of Iranian state authorities deserve justice’. He added that the torture and mistreatment of political prisoners must cease and said ‘the United States, along with partners and allies around the world, will continue to pursue accountability for those responsible for these abuses through sanctions and other means’. Mr Sullivan is also concerned that Iran is providing backing for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden hoped to coax Iran back into a deal to prevent it developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons. This process has now stalled. Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes containment rather than negotiation would have been a better approach when dealing with Iran. He notes that the US invasion of Iraq and its support for Arab Uprisings have affected its standing among leaders in the Middle East. ‘Although Biden is not responsible for this state of affairs, he has made mistakes as well,’ says Mr Cook.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, North Korea withdrew deeper into self-isolation, as it restricted movement within the country and used troops to seal the border with China. The World Food Program reported that at the start of 2023, North Korea was facing its most severe food crisis for 30 years. Despite these challenges, it continues to develop weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems, having successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in December 2022. In fact, the regime had are cord year for missile launches in 2022.
The White House has ruled out any direct talks between Joe Biden and Kim Jong-un, having concluded that North Korea appears to be committed to its nuclear posture and is not genuinely open to negotiation.
Instead, the US has worked hard to consolidate its alliance with Japan, which has recently promised to increase its defence budget and buy more advanced weapons from America. Japan’s government has approved ‘counter strike capability’, authorising its military to strike targets in countries which are seen as preparing an imminent attack upon Japan.
The move has been the subject of debate within Japan, as the country’s past guidelines restricted offensive weapons. Japan’s constitution, written after World War II with American influence, bars it from making war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims that the temperature between America and China has lowered, thanks to discussion and engagement. ‘The rest of the world expects us to manage this relationship responsibly,’ Mr Blinken told the Institute of Politics Founding Director David Axelrod in January 2023.
Mr Blinken is likely to fly to Beijing early in 2023 for direct conversations with his new counterpart, Qin Gang, who was formerly Beijing’s ambassador to the US. For their part, the Chinese are taking a softer approach towards diplomacy with the US than previously.
Qin Gang sent a video message to a major baseball game in Washington to usher in the Lunar New Year, where toy rabbits were also thrown into the crowd.
‘I wish the Chinese and American peoples a prosperous Year of the Rabbit and a bright future,’ said Mr Qin.
Nevertheless, Beijing is furious with the US over plans to prevent Chinese companies from buying advanced semiconductors and other high-tech gear from American companies. The move is also stoking tension between the US and some of its allies in Asia and Europe, which fear their tech companies’ operations in Asia will be affected.
Another ongoing source of tension is China’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Biden Administration seems to have accepted this is unlikely to change and has therefore focussed on maintaining a consistent pro-Ukraine response with other like-minded countries.
‘Almost from day one, we’ve seen a lot of premature reports of the demise of the coalition. On the contrary, not only has it held together, it’s grown consistently stronger,’ Secretary Blinken assured David Axelrod in January.
‘Time and again we’ve seen dozens of countries come together to try to make sure that Ukraine is getting what it needs when it needs it to defend itself, to push back against the Russian aggression, to take back the land that was seized, the humanitarian support, the economic support. We just did another so-called drawdown of military equipment for Ukraine, more than $2.5 billion. We’re up to almost $30 billion in military support, about $60 billion in total support. The Europeans have done much the same. And what I’m finding is this: the centre is very much holding,’ Mr Blinken said.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs