With a little over two weeks to go until election day, one thing is for sure – no matter the victor on 3 November, America’s strategic policy approach to the Indo-Pacific is going to change, dramatically. For Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Centre at the Heritage Foundation, the fall out of the election and its impact on Congress and the White House provides interesting alternatives.
For many, the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was an aberration, an anomaly that would wreak disaster for the US, its economy, its populace, the nation's standing as the "Leader of the Free World" and importantly, its alliance networks in an era of global disruption.
While both sides of the political spectrum, both within the US and increasingly around the world have taken up arms against one another, as is evidenced by mounting social, economic and political tensions in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the President has largely stood true to his word, he has moved to hold Communist China more accountable for the economic manipulations, strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, while seeking to make long dependent US allies across Europe more accountable and invested in their collective security.
In doing so, President Trump has drawn the ire of many political, media and strategic pundits who have seen his actions akin to taking an axe to the post-Second World War order established by the US and which has in large part encultured a sense of dependence upon the US for strategic security, while emboldening many, particularly in Europe to criticise the US for taking unilateral action, an ironic response to a President who has actively, albeit rather confrontationally sought to withdraw American troops from foreign wars and limit America's costly expeditionary, interventionist doctrines.
Opposing the bombastic, billionaire political upstart is a former vice president, who has spent nearly five decades within the halls of power and for even the most objective observer appears to be struggling with the cognitive pressures of the Presidential campaign before he encounters the round the clock demands of life in the White House.
Former vice president Joe Biden is viewed by many as a return to the status quo of America's post-Cold War political, economic and strategic establishment, committed to increasing levels of free trade and globalisation, seemingly a firm believer in the US at the apex of the global power structure and the intricate web of alliances designed to encircle and limit the disruptive potential rivals like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
In recognising the two vastly different approaches of both men to the international order and, critically for Australia, the Indo-Pacific in particular, Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Centre at the Heritage Foundation, has detailed a closer look at the potential impact on America's strategic and economic policy approach to the region, regardless the winner on 3 November.
Lohman establishes the precedent, explaining the differing approaches of both men competing to be the leader of the most powerful nation in history, stating:
"The first term of President Donald Trump, while stylistically unsettling, produced many conventional national security and foreign policy outcomes in the Indo-Pacific. The US military is still forward-deployed. The Trump administration has maintained US alliances throughout the region and diplomatic commitments to south-east Asia. It has undertaken new diplomatic initiatives as well, in places like the South China Sea and the Mekong.
"Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s consistent focus on its Indo-Pacific strategy has helped catalyse similar conceptual frameworks as far afield as Berlin.
"As for his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden is the definition of the bipartisan Washington establishment. He is proposing no big changes in America’s traditional Asia policy, beyond repairing the damage he estimates has been done to it by Trump. A Biden administration’s national security strategy would more resemble the Trump administration’s 2017 document than anything produced during Barack Obama’s administration."
What are the possibilities?
Setting aside the blow-for-blow results from across the battle ground states and the arguments surrounding popular vote results versus the electoral college results, the 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most scrutinised and closely observed US elections in living memory.
As Lohman states, regardless of the winner, there will be a dramatic shift in America's approach to foreign and strategic policy, however, the impact of the election will depend heavily upon a number of factors, namely, who wins the White House, and the nature of the split between Democrats or Republicans in the race to control the House and Senate.
Accordingly, Lohman breaks down a number of options.
Looking to a returned Trump presidency, with Republican Senate and Democrat dominated House, Lohman believes this outcome would see a continuation of the past four years of America's approach to the Indo-Pacific and broader global security framework as a whole.
Lohman states, "Trump will continue a forceful line on China, and this competitive dynamic will guide American foreign policy generally throughout the region. There will continue to be bipartisanship in Congress around the need to confront China. The difficulty will come in reconciling inevitable overall budget cuts with a hawkish China policy.
"The choices will be to maintain defence spending at the considerable cost of domestic programs; to attempt the China competition on the cheap — most significantly, cutting into military readiness and shipbuilding plans; or to prioritise the Indo-Pacific theatre over other global interests. There will be a similar set of choices with State Department and development assistance funding."
Shifting focus to a Biden presidency, with a Republican Senate and Democrat dominated House, Lohman believes there would be an internal battle of priorities for the heavily divided Democrat party, with the battle lines drawn between those more focused on competing with Beijing, and those reminiscent of Obama's conciliatory approach to managing a rising and increasingly assertive China.
Lohman expects that the Senate Republicans in this instance will present a consistent roadblock to Biden's designs, no matter the outcome of the internal Democrat policy disputes, building on this Lohman explains the impact upon defence spending and related foreign and national security policy mechanisms in order to support a domestic recovery, at least in theory.
"A Biden presidency will provoke persistent charges of appeasement from Republicans in Congress. No approach he takes to China will be strong enough in their estimation. This will invigorate hardliners in the Biden administration and seed the ground for ever-firmer policies down the road. Trading off domestic spending to maintain defence spending will be off the table," Lohman said.
"The government will, therefore, be left with even starker versions of the other two options, cutting into military and diplomatic capacity or downsizing commitments elsewhere. It will seek to make up the difference with a renewed focus on leveraging alliances and partnerships, as well as plurilateral and multilateral organisations."
Finally, Lohman details what he expects of a Democrat clean sweep, of the White House, Senate and House, which would be a disastrous outcome for the Republicans and see their legislative and policy presence decimated across the executive and legislative branches of the US government.
While Lohman predicts that this outcome would be disastrous for the Republicans, this result would also trigger a major shift in the Democrats, with Lohman explaining, "This outcome favours the conciliatory side of Biden’s China team. There is no returning to the comprehensive Obama-era emphasis on US–China co-operation, but prospects of co-operation in specific areas like climate change and pandemic management will take the edge off US-China competition.
"In some areas, like the Trump administration’s very active schedule of freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea or its increased support for Taiwan, co-operation with China will on occasion take precedence."
The trade debate
When he was first elected in 2016, President Trump took to the global trade system with a sledgehammer, focused on overturning what he saw as unfair trade deals with friend and foe alike, many pundits summarised it as nationalist, protectionist and isolationist in nature and a threat to the global order.
Nevertheless, the President's approach appears to have gained degrees of favour from many former critics, particularly in Europe as the full impact of COVID-19 and its devastating impact upon both national and global economies has seen many nations scramble for the protective life boat of the 'nation-state' to prioritise their own economic, political and strategic national interests to protect their populations.
Despite this global shift, Lohman believes regardless the outcome on 3 November, US trade policy will be broadly focused on the domestic politics of trade, as opposed to the broader grand strategy dimensions of trade policy, in particular, Loham explains: "Unlike in previous eras, particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush, where the balance of political forces favoured free trade, the balance now has turned heavily in the direction of protection and industrial policy. This will constrain the economic component of any US Asia policy."
Building on this, Lohman believes both sides of the aisle will continue to focus on the increasingly effective and politically popular tariff measures, particularly against China, a nation long believed to manipulate its currency and leverage interests in key international trade institutions to benefit its own economic development to the detriment of other trading nations.
"But while there may be adjustments in the target set — expect less pressure on Canada and Japan in a Biden administration, for instance — neither administration will move off of America’s new found enthusiasm for punitive tariffs as an instrument of trade policy. Tariffs on China in particular will be exceedingly difficult to remove," Lohman said.
"Meanwhile, trade remedies that the Trump administration has made ample use of — anti-dumping and safeguard provisions — will continue to receive a great deal of attention. Remedies that appear to most contradict US commitments to the World Trade Organization, like restrictive tariffs, will receive less attention in a Biden administration. New comprehensive trade liberalisation initiatives — including joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — will be nearly impossible in either administration."
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.