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Foreign Policy

2021 Preview: The Irreversible Trend

Jan 22, 2021
  • Huang Jing

    University Professor at Shanghai International Studies University

This year, 2021, will be full of both hope and confusion. With Donald Trump’s dethroning, the tremendous uncertainty of Trumpism will end and the incoming administration of Joe Biden will return to multilateralism and adherence to the established norms in international affairs. This will instill long-absent stability into the global order.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in most countries, and all developed Western nations, especially the United States, face formidable challenges from within. And there remains great uncertainty about the most important bilateral relationship in the world — U.S.-China relations. Thus, the world will continue to be confused and worried in 2021. 

Biden administration to focus on “healing” at home 

Although Biden won the presidential election with more than 81 million votes, Trump still garnered an unprecedented 74 million. This indicates unmistakably that in addition to the devastating pandemic and economic slump, the nation faces its deepest division since the American Civil War.

This was dramatically demonstrated in the Trump-inspired violence on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021. Given the perilous situation, the incoming Biden administration has little choice but to concentrate on domestic issues, making healing its top priority. Simultaneously, Biden must heal the pandemic and take effective control to prevent its spread. Second, he must heal the U.S. economy, reversing the slide as soon as possible — and especially prevent the nearly $9 trillion quantitative easing during the pandemic from causing yet another financial tsunami. Last but not least, he must heal a deeply divided nation. He must make the utmost effort to overcome (or at least mitigate) the divisions in both American society and politics.

Congressional midterm elections in 2022 will be a key test of whether the healing has been effective. Should the Democrats not prevail substantially in the midterms, Biden’s hopes of re-election in 2024 will be dampened. Gone with a one-term Biden presidency would be the stability the world has so desperately needed. 

Europe will be the top priority in Biden foreign policy 

The crux of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is to reestablish America’s influence over Europe (and Japan) based on the U.S. alliance system. For this, Biden has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as presidential envoy in charge of the country’s return to the Paris climate agreement.

But Kerry has a much bigger role to play. With his rich experience, reputation and personal network, Kerry can help Biden cope with conflicts between interest groups at home, especially divisions in different factions of the Democratic Party. He can also play a substantial role in communication with Congress on foreign affairs.

Internationally, Kerry can help Biden handle issues of major concern, especially in U.S.-EU relations. As the president’s special envoy, Kerry can communicate directly with Biden and offer advice on virtually all issues that involve vital U.S. interests. Kerry’s role is irreplaceable, which will allow him to function as a sort of “second vice president.”

Obviously rejoining the Paris agreement will only be the first step in repairing U.S.-EU relations. After all, climate change is a key policy concern of Europe. But Kerry is more concerned about returning to the Iran nuclear deal. This is not only because the deal was the result of his endeavors as secretary of state but also because restoring the deal is of major importance to Europe.

First, the Iran nuclear deal will steer Iran away from nuclear arms, hence demolishing a huge time bomb threatening the Middle East, and even the world. Second, as sanctions against Iran are lifted, energy supplies from Iran will fundamentally change European dependence on Russian resources, hence strengthening Europe’s strategic posture toward Russia. Third, as the Iran situation stabilizes, conditions in the Middle East will also improve. This in turn will help to manage (if not resolve) problems caused by the refugee crisis and terrorism, which have put tremendous pressure on Europe. 

China-U.S. relations key to global stability 

Development of the China-U.S. relationship will have a decisive impact on the extent to which the global situation will return to normal. Though the negative pattern of strategic competition provoked by the U.S. persists, in the wake of Biden’s victory both Washington and Beijing have indicated willingness to stop the downward spiral in the bilateral relationship.

But the Biden administration may continue to take a tough stance against China when it comes to ideological differences and human rights issues. This may help appease the domestic opposition and help Biden claim moral high ground in domestic politics, while setting a yardstick of “values” for allies that showcases U.S. leadership. On concrete policy issues, however, the Biden administration will “de-Trump” and strive to come up with a comprehensive and consistent policy framework on China.

This means it will be difficult for the Biden administration to present a detailed policy framework on China before the 2022 congressional elections, as it will require both congressional endorsement and allies’ cooperation. It will not be surprising, therefore, if the Biden administration freezes concrete policies and adopts a tough stance toward China.

While this surely will raise hopes for damage control in China-U.S. relations, the specifics remain ambiguous. After all, developments in either U.S. domestic politics or the global situation could outrun the Biden team’s preferences. 

Centenary changes irrevocable 

The present-day world has seen irrevocable changes. Despite the difficulties and harm wrought by the pandemic, China has brought the situation under control while managing to achieve continuous economic growth. This demonstrates that China’s peaceful rise continues with unstoppable momentum. The gap between China and the U.S. will continue to narrow, and the role China has to play in world affairs will become increasingly significant and prominent.

By comparison, while the Biden administration will seek to reclaim U.S. leadership in international affairs, at least with its allies, neither American hard power nor soft power will dominate as it once did. Europe and Japan — the two strongest U.S. allies — have consolidated their strengths and positions during the Trump presidency. Rather than weakening the EU, Brexit has further cemented the primacy of Germany and France in European affairs. Continental powers regaining dominance in Europe indicates the trend of Europe seeking an independent position and role in the global strategic landscape.

Japan’s gains in its relationship with the U.S. is more significant. For the first time since the end of World War II, Japan played leadership role in two major international projects — the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Japan-EU Agreement on Free Trade and Investment — during the Trump era. These two groundbreaking achievements have not only upgraded Japan’s international standing but also provided it with the confidence and capital to say no to the U.S.

Soon after Biden’s victory, Japan actively responded to China’s initiative to negotiate for participation in the CPTPP. Meanwhile, Europe overcame overt and covert U.S. government interference and conducted negotiations for an overall investment agreement with China. These two developments show that not only do Japan and Europe differ from the U.S. in world outlooks and interests but they also have the willingness and capability to hedge between the U.S. and China despite treaty alliances with America.

The other two major powers — Russia and India — are also actively consolidating themselves, expanding their capacity and influence. The comprehensive strategic partnership with China has not only helped Russia manage its economic situation and security environment under harsh sanctions by the U.S.-led West but is conducive to a greater Russian role and influence in international affairs.

The pandemic and policy blunders have resulted in a steady economic slowdown in India. Moreover, rising populism has acerbated the trend of economic involution, which led to restrictions on the Modi government’s capability to cope with internal and external challenges. Only by continuing to adhere to its nonalignment policy can India retain maximum flexibility in international affairs and take full advantage of its strategic leverage in its interactions with the other major powers.

ASEAN is one of the few regions enjoying strong economic momentum now. The group’s teaming-up with China economically is obviously a fundamental reason for its growing prosperity. This explains why ASEAN nations, including U.S. allies, repeatedly stated that they would not take sides between the U.S. and China. This is conducive to preserving regional stability and development.

Meanwhile, ASEAN-China consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea have entered the final stage. Once signed, the document will not only effectively stabilize the South China Sea situation and prevent territorial disputes from escalating into confrontations but it will also deprive any outside power of any justification for interfering in South China Sea affairs in the name of security and stability.

The year 2021 will see a clearer macro trend in the global strategic landscape — a change from unipolar hegemony to a new situation in which the hegemon has to adapt to a multipolar world.

Economically, with the signing of the RCEP and China-EU investment agreement, China’s active participation in the CPTPP and continual development of the Belt and Road Initiative, the world economy will not slide into the countercurrent of deglobalization. Instead, we are witnessing a process of higher-level integration of the world economy. These two irrevocable macro trends are where our hopes lie for 2021.

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