Joe Biden Has a Barack Obama Problem

Many leaders in Asia, in particular, remain unhappy with the former president’s foreign policy.

Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Three years into his first term, President Barack Obama stood before the Australian Parliament and sketched out his vision for the United States’ tilting toward Asia. His tone was optimistic: Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down; the “tide of war is receding,” he told lawmakers in Canberra. These developments would allow Washington to shift its focus. “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure,” Obama said, “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.”

The U.S., he pledged, would concentrate on efforts to “advance security, prosperity, and human dignity across the Asia Pacific.” This shift was buttressed by a charming personal narrative that the president would often invoke on trips to the region: He had lived for four years as a boy in Jakarta, where, he would later write, he spent his days racing through the streets with an eclectic band of friends, hunting crickets and flying kites, before moving to Hawaii.

“The pivot,” as it was known, was largely welcomed by regional leaders, but Obama’s confidence in his ability to shift America’s unwieldy foreign-policy apparatus proved to be overstated. There were notable accomplishments, such as reengagement with Myanmar, upgraded relations with several other Southeast Asian countries, and a clarification of the U.S. position supporting Japan over a territorial row with China. But a complete commitment to the region never materialized, hamstrung by a litany of obstacles and distractions, foreign and domestic. The U.S. was not able to fully extract itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS rose violently, and the Obama administration was caught flat-footed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive, expansionist rule. American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal, was effectively ruled out when even Obama’s fellow party members turned against it, and Donald Trump formally withdrew from it during his first days in office. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an enormous Asian free-trade agreement between China and 14 other nations, was signed on Sunday without Washington. “The pivot to Asia was a good idea, but it was never properly implemented,” Bilahari Kausikan, an outspoken former permanent secretary of Singapore’s ministry of foreign affairs, told me.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden embraced his former boss’s legacy. But the Obama years loom particularly large across the Pacific region—and the retrospection is not all rosy. While many foreign partners will welcome a return to a semblance of normalcy after four years of Trump’s chaotic “America First” doctrine, there is also a wariness in parts of Asia over a possible reversion to Obama-era policies and players under Biden, particularly when it comes to confronting China’s growing power.

Obama, Kausikan told me, excelled at diplomacy, but was “uncomfortable with exercising power,” and, as a result, Biden “will be deeply scrutinized for any sign of weakness, and he will be scrutinized by friends and foes.” That, he continued, “is a reality he cannot escape.”

The region presents a host of challenges, including trade, North Korea’s continued nuclearization, and climate change. Most are entangled with China, which, in the four years since Biden was last in office, has moved to assert its dominance over the region, challenging India over territorial claims along their border, upping its threats against Taiwan, and expanding its menacing behavior in the South China Sea. Biden wrote this year in Foreign Affairs that the country represents “a special challenge,” for Washington. The former vice president pitched an effort to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.”

Yet nerves will nevertheless need easing. Officials in Taiwan and prodemocracy activists in Hong Kong, for example, have expressed their doubts about Trump leaving office and worry that Biden marks a return to a more conciliatory stance toward China. Some in Vietnam have also been left deflated by Trump’s loss. Detractors in Hong Kong often point to Obama’s muted response to 2014’s Umbrella protests as evidence that his administration ignored warnings about Beijing’s encroachment on the city, and note that the Trump administration has moved the consensus opinion on China in a more hawkish direction, stepping up weapons sales and sending high-ranking officials to Taiwan. (Trump himself has at times been friendly toward Xi, and has frequently refused to support Hong Kong’s protest movement.)

Eric Sayers, an adjunct senior fellow for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told me Biden has a “long record on China that reflects the centrist view of the time periods in which he has been in government,” but noted that the situation has “changed quickly in the last five years on the topic and so has Biden’s rhetoric.” Notably, a Biden-campaign spokesperson this year called the repression of minority Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region a “genocide.” Washington has also experienced a profound shift in recent years in how China is viewed, exemplified by a slew of legislation targeting the country, some of which has passed with near unanimous support, a trend that will probably continue. Republicans, for now, remain in control of the Senate, meaning a “litmus test on the question of China” will be likely, Sayers told me, for all Biden-administration appointees that need confirmation, even beyond those in traditional foreign-policy departments.

That could force Biden to rule out certain picks seen as too soft on China. Take Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser, whose name has been floated by a number of publications for a Biden-administration post. She personifies the type of Obama-era official some in the region are hesitant to see return to American government, whom China hawks at home and abroad view with serious skepticism. In a widely shared Facebook post in August, Kausikan wrote that Rice would be “a disaster,” when her name surfaced as a possible running mate for Biden, arguing that she has very little interest in Asia and no stomach for competition with China.

Even among allies who would welcome greater attention from Washington, a balance must be struck. Southeast Asia offers a case in point: Few areas were showered with as much attention under Obama, who twice visited Myanmar—where he was greeted with throngs of flag-waving school children and a hug from Aung San Suu Kyi at her lake-house home—and became the first sitting American president to visit Laos. The Trump administration, by contrast, has largely neglected the region, never appointing an ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-country regional bloc, or to Singapore. Regional meetings were disregarded, and a planned summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the U.S., similar to one held by Obama, never materialized due to the pandemic. “There is no doubt in my mind American soft power degraded under Trump,” Kausikan said. “That is pretty much like saying water is wet.”

The idea of just showing up “sounds very simplistic and procedural, but in this region, it matters,” Marty Natalegawa, who served as Indonesia’s foreign minister from 2009 to 2014, told me. Antony Blinken, a Biden adviser who served as deputy secretary of state under Obama, tweeted in August that the president-elect will “show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues of common interest.” Even when Trump-administration officials did visit, or hold high-level meetings, their message was often that Southeast Asian countries must choose between the U.S. and China. This position was so pronounced during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Indonesia and Vietnam that the Associated Press called it an “anti-China tour” of the region. Most leaders see this ultimatum as “a false choice,” Natalegawa told me, one that he said disregards the geography of the region. “It is an unnecessary complication arising out of the United States’ making such an oversimplification of what the choices are for our region. It is not binary.”

And yet, as much as this bellicose anti-China rhetoric grated on regional leaders, the actions that accompanied it nevertheless won some praise from those who felt that Obama was overly dependent on soft power and unwilling to exercise force. Antonio Carpio, a former supreme-court judge in the Philippines who lauded Obama’s initial efforts in helping Manila push back against China’s attempts to claim the South China Sea, lamented that the “concept [of] the pivot was good, but the execution was not.” The effort, he told me, lacked the military component that Trump has been more willing to deploy, frequently sending ships sailing through contested waters. Without clear red lines—particularly around further Chinese militarization of territorial waters—Biden risks facing a predicament similar to Obama’s, Carpio said. And in that case, “the U.S. reputation in the Philippines and in Southeast and Northeast Asia will suffer a terrible blow.”

The incoming Biden administration, Natalegawa told me, faces a tremendous set of challenges in Asia. Singling one out or attempting to deploy one strategy to address them all simply will not suffice. “Somehow,” he said, “you have to be able to walk and whistle at the same time.”