Biden must listen to new Asian voices
In August 2011, Joe Biden visited China where he dined in a Beijing noodle restaurant and had several meetings with his then vice-presidential counterpart, Xi Jinping.
He also travelled to Chengdu and, speaking at Sichuan University, described China as a new partner ‘with whom we can meet global challenges together’.
Not once did he mention democracy.
Nine years later, in the eyes of millions of American voters, China is seen more as a threat than a partner and Biden is already making democracy a cornerstone of his policy, with plans to set up a group of democratic nations to counter Beijing’s projection of power.
This would be a dangerous path, not least because, in much of the developing world, democracy symbolises ideology over pragmatism and has become synonymous with a perception of the West’s high-minded dictates that too often end badly.
The city state of Singapore has acted as a compelling voice since its founder, the late Lee Kuan Yew, deployed the term Asian Values in the 1990s, prioritising the right of the community over the right of the individual. His aim was to give intellectual ballast against constant Western pressure on how Asian governments should be run.
Like many countries in the region, Singapore has experience of dealing with opposing superpowers while balancing its own ethnic and religious communities. It does not believe now, nor did it then, that Western-style democracy, with its free and polarised press and unpredictable elections, is the right way to achieve its goals.
Biden’s deployment of the democratic beacon at this moment may play well in grassroots America but it is already getting a very cool reception in Asia. The highlighting of China’s dictatorial tendencies risks bouncing the spotlight onto those very Asian governments he wants to bring in as allies and pitting a democratic Asian neighbour against a more authoritarian one.
‘I think not very many countries would like to join basically a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom will be China,’ warns Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Since Biden left office in January 2017, Asian leaders have undergone a sea change of thinking. Donald Trump’s isolationist approach prompted them to reflect more urgently on shaping their own future. Manymirrored Singapore’s view of needing China as their top trading partner, whilst also supporting a strong American presence.
Little of this has yet percolated among America’s grassroots electorate.
Biden’s challenge, therefore, is to navigate the US through without compromising American values or appearing to go soft on China. Much can be done with language.
In recent years, as the Sino-US relationship became more antagonistic, China commentators have returned to using Marxist-Leninist doctrineto describe how the Chinese Communist Party operates. While Beijing still keeps basic Leninist political structures, it long ago abandoned those restrictions that ended up destroying the Soviet economy. Yet Lenin is now a defining element within the anti-China echo chambers.
In sound-bite television news cycles, there is little time to explain Lenin except that he represented Soviet communism against which the Cold War was fought. It immediately creates a mindset of hostility against China and a looming necessity for another Cold War.
Leninist comparisons were, in fact, abandoned in the early 1990s when China embraced reform. Joe Biden’s 2011 assessment to Sichuan University students made no mention of either Lenin or authoritarianism. He spoke, instead, of China’s progress being ‘nothing short of incredible’ and the power of language as the ‘ability to put your ideas into words and communicate’.
The language swirling around the West’s democratic beacon, therefore, needs close examination. In its present form it is seen as an attempt by the US to divide Asia into an anti-China coalition, which would have a high risk of failure.
Far better to speak about good governance, rule of law, economic growth, higher living standards and such like, than using a word that excludes those whom the US seeks as Asian allies.
By resolving to retain its position in Asia, the US faces the same challenge as China. To succeed, both must earn the trust of the smaller Asian nations which now have a far more confident and united voice.
The new president cannot abruptly reverse Trump’s China policy, not least because Xi Jinping himself has been aggressively testing red lines whether with Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan or along the disputed Sino-Indian border.
Biden’s message to the students in Chengdu was to understand other perspectives and he stressed, ‘Like China, the United States has a huge stake in the prosperity and stability of Asia and the Pacific.’
With more nuanced language and a listening ear open to the new Asian voices, Biden could, without forfeiting American values, achieve this shared goal.