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04.12.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Indian-Pacific Region against the Backdrop of Ongoing Transition of Power in the US


At this time, when the transfer of power in the United States is proving to be unprecedentedly difficult, two things draw the attention of the expert community: what the departing administration of a leading world power will manage to pull off, and what changes the global political landscape, shifting towards the Indian-Pacific region, may undergo with the arrival of the new power in Washington.

Regarding the first point, not much can be influenced other than by saying prayers: “Lord, save us from these oh so wise people, who have once again taken up the fight against communistic-totalitarianism.” With regard to the latter, the assumptions are of a very general nature due to the understandable scarcity of information. It is unlikely that words spoken once by someone from Joe Biden’s emerging team, as well as their past deeds, can be considered as such. Likewise, hardly anything informative can be found in the current (obviously made up on the spot) ‘politically correct’ stories, like the one that ended with the iconic for Americans words – God Bless America.

So far, the topic of congratulations to the “new president” has been under special supervision, i.e. who, when and why has not yet done so. In addition, a lot of food for thought is provided by the ongoing interactions between other important world players, in particular the visit to Tokyo by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

As for the congratulations, long before the completion of all post-election procedures, the “external” reaction to Joe Biden’s announcement of himself as the 46th President of the United States was monitored with special attention. The closest allies in Europe and Asia, of course, ended up in the front row. It is quite understandable: the four years of the “abandoned spouse’s” suffering, followed by the rumored return of the “husband”. Let me send him a letter: “My dear, please hurry. No longer can I bear.”

But the “Dear” has piled up a lot of his own problems these days. In the November 8 “victory” speech by Joe Biden on the (Trump’s, by the way) issue “to make America respected again” (in the original, however, the word “great” was used) there are the iconic words “all over the world”. Which is exactly what is meant to reassure foreign sufferers.

However, the intention to “unite ourselves here, at home” was further stated. He certainly couldn’t avoid saying that after the action (which stunned the “world community”), against the background of which another act of “American democracy” took place.

Therefore, the situation in the US-alliance system will definitely not return to the “as it used to be” state. And this is well understood by the “spouse” herself. Today it is difficult to talk about how relations in the “western family” will develop further, because there are too many factors of uncertainty on the world’s gaming table.

The most important of those is due to the prospects of relations between the US and the main current geopolitical opponent in the form of China. This explains the close attention to the issue when Beijing joins the flow of “congratulations” to the new American president. However, contrary to the frequent assumptions that Beijing would be among the “pioneers” (on the basis of a semi-conspiracy theory about some “special connections” of the CPC leadership with the Democratic Party of the USA since the time of Bill Clinton), China has withstood a considerable pause.

There is a quite rational explanation for this, provided by radical changes in the world structure as a whole and mutual positioning of the now leading world powers. 20 years ago China was not yet such a power, although even then American political analysts predicted exactly this future. Today the situation in the world and in bilateral relations is no longer (or at least, very weakly) dependent on some kind of inter-party disagreements within the US.

In addition, the geopolitical “band” separating the US and China is so deeply plowed by the predecessors of the new administration (who, by the way, still continue to do so with particular zeal in the final stage of their stay in the White House) that it will be extremely difficult to overcome it. That is, if there are any such intentions at all.

It is enough to point out the “Taiwan problem,” which the efforts of Donald Trump’s Administration have moved to the center of the entire system of the US-Chinese relations. Today, “free independent Taiwan” is already an integral part of the U.S. image as a leader on the global political scene. A painless extraction of the “Taiwanese” element from this image is now hardly possible at all. However, once again, it is not unlikely that such attempts won’t be made at all.

Beijing understands all this and therefore took its time with the official signs of attention to the power shift of its geopolitical opponent. Only on November 13 and only the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “respect for the choice of the American people.” As the BBC comments say, “after a long silence”. It is quite possible that a kind of motivation for Beijing to finally express its position on the outcome of the US elections were the words spoken the day before by the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (probably the main “well-wisher” of China) that “Taiwan is not part of China.”

This was followed by another almost two week long silence pause, and on November 25, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping finally congratulated Joe Biden on his election as US president. The congratulations were accompanied by a general speech, very common for such cases. All these “pauses” are quite clear: there is no need to rush when the future is still clouded in fog.

But the list of factors and events that influence the formation of the world’s political jigsaw puzzle (as well as its most important component in the Indian-Pacific region) is, of course, not limited to the one determined by the state of US-Chinese relations. Once again, let us point out a very important event, namely, the signing on November 15 this year of the Agreement on the establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

This is the culmination of a multi-year process of establishing the world’s largest free trade zone with the participation of 10 ASEAN member countries, as well as China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The most important consequence of the formation of RCEP is the further strengthening of China’s position in the region and in the world as a whole.

It would seem that Beijing could rest easily, knowing of its undoubted success. And yet, a week later during the next (27th) Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) (video)summit, Chairman Xi said that China is considering joining CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).

Let us recall that the CPTPP, which has been in force since early 2019, includes 11 countries in Asia and both Americas, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Japan serves as the informal leader of the association. These three countries now also belong to the RCEP. Thus, China is willing not only to avoid the prospect of competition between RCEP and CPTPP, but also to organize their interaction. This will inevitably increase the potential for Beijing’s political influence in the region.

According to the Chinese Global Times, discussion of “some details” of such interaction against the background of “weakening of the US role in the region” (including due to domestic political turmoil) was one of the main objectives of Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Japan on November 24-26. During his visit, he also had talks with his colleague Toshimitsu Motegi, as well as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on a number of other issues.

Let us remind that these are the second and third world economies, the state of relations between which significantly affects the overall picture of the regional political landscape. Especially given the factor of the decline of the US role, which was also the subject of the talks in Tokyo.

The prospects for US-Chinese relations under the new administration in Washington were considered, the deterioration of which has recently caused concern in Japan. It is also due to the decline in the global economic situation provoked (along with the coronavirus pandemic factor) by the US-Chinese “trade war”.

The negotiations touched upon the issue of the ownership of five uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea (de facto controlled by Japan, but claimed by China), as well as the recent increase in incidents involving coast guard ships of both countries. And though in the question of ownership of the mentioned islands the parties remained at their opinions, it was determined to avoid further deterioration of the situation.

Finally, we note that the US factor will remain one of the most important factors that determine the transformation of the political puzzle in the Indian-Pacific region. What will be the role of the world’s leading power here (and in the world in general) can be judged further by the first foreign policy steps that the new American administration will take immediately after the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States on January 20, 2021.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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