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Biden's challenge with Asia requires understanding nuances of partners

Biden's challenge with Asia requires understanding nuances of partners
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As the commentary following the diplomatic rumble in Alaska suggests, issues with China are not going to dissipate any time soon. Managing them will involve, as one aide to President BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE commented, a “multi-administration effort,” one that suggests that the issues that divide us have been a long time in coming and will involve a long road ahead if we are to get back to a more balanced ratio of cooperation and competition. 

That journey will also require a multi-country effort, fellow travelers who are prepared for its entirety. Those countries may have different perspectives on the challenge that China poses but understand, nonetheless, that the choices China is making, internally and externally, are not sustainable either for China itself or for the rest of us. Indeed, the measure of success in dealing with China may depend less on direct talks with China, important as they are, and more about our ability to find common ground with friends and allies. 

What is most heartening about the Biden administration’s launch into what is undoubtedly its greatest foreign policy challenge is its fundamental understanding of the sequence and nuance of foreign policy and the need to reach out to our partners first and listen carefully to what they say.    

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Cyber communication, game-changing as it obviously is, has never displaced sheer geography in terms of forming a country’s worldview. Japan and South Korea have different perspectives on China. U.S. success in dealing with China will depend on our ability to absorb and understand those perspectives. After all, they may not quite be able — to borrow Sarah Palin’s memorialized phrase about Russia — to see China from their upstairs window, but they certainly have a historical vantage point that the U.S. should understand if it is to succeed in what needs to be a cooperative effort with other players.

The histories of China and South Korea have overlapped for thousands of years, but it was not until the 1980s that formal diplomatic relations were established with the exchange of embassies.  China rapidly became South Korea’s main trading partner, a fact that has — as in much of China’s near-abroad — contributed enormously to Korea’s economic growth.

For those who worry about China’s propensity to bully, they can find many such examples in how it used its newfound leverage with its neighbors. When South Korea, reacting to North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles, sought to deploy a limited U.S.-made anti-ballistic missile system (THAAD) in 2016, the Chinese reaction was to implement an effective boycott of South Korea goods, even taking measures to limit Chinese tourist visits. The deployment of THAAD was quite clearly aimed at the threat posed by North Korea, yet the Chinese, in a sort of Middle Kingdom mode, seemed incapable of understanding that it is not always about them. It took a couple of years for trade relations to begin to return to normal, with the obviously intimidating message from Beijing that Seoul should not try that again.

In America’s consultations with its allies, it needs to understand these developments that have helped form the perspectives of countries in the region. The South Korean public has great sympathy for what Hong Kong is enduring, and any perusal of the South Korean press will also reveal an understanding that the crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uyghur population is alarming. While these examples of Chinese behavior are no doubt deeply troubling in countries such as Korea and Japan, they may not be the issues they want to lead with in forging a diplomatic strategy aimed at regional insecurities and China’s maritime bellicosity and other examples of its increasing unilateralism in changing the status quo. 

The Trump administration often seemed to suggest that the problem the U.S. had with Chinese was with its Communist Party. That nuance of expression suggested that somehow if only China would change its governance good things would happen. 

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Whether it was meant to be a call for regime change or not, it certainly came across as one. That kind of message will not be conducive to a coalition of countries prepared for the long haul of changing China’s perspective, not its governance.

China’s relations with its neighborhood have deteriorated in recent years. It was not long ago that Chinese leaders ventured out for visits to neighbors that involved days of scheduling, replete with what Americans call “public diplomacy” events, whether it was former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tossing a baseball at a Japanese baseball camp or former President Hu Jintao making a week-long visit that included cultural sites to Indonesia.

That has all changed in recent years, as has China’s willingness to deal with the international community on sustainable terms. The U.S. will obviously have to step up its internal game, whether in technology or sheer economic output, or, most importantly, regaining domestic political balance, but its success in changing the terms of the relationship with China will also depend on good listening skills in Asia.  

As the readouts of Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenGreene apologizes for comparing vaccine rules to Holocaust Detainee fates hang over Biden meeting with Putin ICC relations with US undergoing 'reset' with Biden, prosecutor says MORE’s visits to Seoul and Tokyo suggest, that part of the journey is off to a good start. Most importantly, the visits symbolized something that countries in the region know will be essential — namely, that the U.S. is back.

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including to South Korea in 2004-05. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He currently teaches at Columbia University in New York. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.