|President-elect Joe Biden has a tough task on his hands as he seeks to unite a deep political divide, photo AFP |
The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced last week that “America United” is the theme for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, already a key message of his campaign that has grown more poignant amid recent events at Capitol Hill.
Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton will attend the inauguration on January 20 with their wives, according to CNN. Donald Trump has said that he will not attend.
“This inauguration marks a new chapter for the American people – one of healing, of unifying, of coming together, of an America united,” said committee CEO Tony Allen.
Biden ran on a message of hope and unity, urging Americans from the launch of his campaign to band together despite differences that continue to tear at the nation. The inauguration and the traditional events surrounding it, however, will be scaled down because of the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tickets to the swearing-in ceremony have been made only on a limited basis, with parade stands near the White House removed to discourage crowds, reported USA Today. Typically popular inaugural balls have also been cancelled, and health officials are urging people to simply not travel in order to attend.
Despite fewer people and virtual events, there will be heightened security after a violent mob stormed the Capitol on January 6. Five people including a US Capitol Police officer died after attackers, many of them armed and waving flags in support of President Trump, rushed the Capitol where lawmakers were formally confirming Biden’s victory in November’s election.
Dozens of people have been charged for the violence and hundreds more cases are expected.
After winning the presidency in 2016, Trump stood firm with an “America first” stance while showing hostility towards multilateral organisations, as demonstrated in his decisions to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Human Rights Council, as well as a threat to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The same can be said for climate change, with Trump also removing the US from the Paris Agreement. Biden, conversely, has voiced his support for renewing US support for NATO and continuing membership in the WHO, while also declaring that he would rejoin the Paris climate accord.
The trade war with China was the centrepiece of Trump’s trade policy during his first term, according to New York-based finance site Investopedia. He promised to penalise those the US had a high trade deficit with, or nations he believed were unfairly taxing American companies overseas. But experts also noted that Trump had to be careful about angering Beijing, with the overburdened US healthcare system depending on China for medical supplies – it accounts for nearly half of all personal protective equipment imports in the US.
But the domestic arena will be top priority for the new president. As he described in an article for Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again”, Biden plans to assist with America’s position in the global economy by investing at home in innovation and the middle classes first – promising to do so before entering into any new trade agreements.
The difficulties at home were thrown into starker view a fortnight ago when the Labor Department reported that the economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, ending a seven-month streak of growth after the country’s plunge into recession in the spring.
Biden said there was “a dire, dire need to act now.” He pledged to move rapidly once he becomes president to push a stimulus package through Congress to provide relief to struggling individuals, small businesses, students, local governments, and schools.
Biden and his aides have not yet finished the proposal or settled on its full amount, but Biden admitted the cost would be in the “trillions” of US dollars. Further job losses are projected in January due to the continuing carnage caused by the pandemic, along with lockdowns and other restrictions on economic activity.
Biden also pledged to ramp up efforts to slow the spread of the virus, which has recently been claiming 4,000 lives each day, by immediately providing more vaccines when he takes office, breaking sharply from Donald Trump’s practice of holding back some shots for second doses – a policy that has also been seen in the UK and elsewhere.
“People are really, really, really in desperate shape,” Biden said.
On January 20, Biden will officially take responsibility for steering the country through a batch of crises more intense than any that faced by recent predecessors. “It’s bigger than his presidency – it’s going to take a generation working on all this,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff. “Biden will take the first steps, but you don’t deal with 20 years of change in a week or two. This is a generation’s worth of work.”
Coalition of allies
Further afield, the sheer number of major issues could slow down any jolts in the relationship with Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam. The Trump administration largely carried on the work taken out by Obama to foster stronger ties with the region – and any lack of action on US-China tensions may only help countries like Vietnam.
Vietnam has recorded a large trade surplus with the US, which has risen further in the past year. It was in part a reflection of the supply chain advantages Vietnam has mustered due to multinationals diversifying in order to circumvent the States’ higher tariffs on Chinese-made goods.
Under the Trump administration US-Vietnam trade surged, and the two sides have explored the possibility of upgrading formal relations. Both Trump and Obama considered the country a key ally in the region and a rising economic power, and experts so far have no reason to see why Biden would act any differently.
According to Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank, Vietnam could see a slowdown in foreign investment if the Biden administration were to restore Chinese tariffs to previous levels. However, he added that “some analysts see the movement of supply chains away from China, especially by Japan, as more of a natural development than one simply enforced by the US.”
Biden previously said the best way to confront China on intellectual property and technology transfers is by forming a coalition with allies and partners, and not through unilateral tariffs. This stance could work to the advantage of Vietnam and ASEAN in general, with Biden’s apparent willingness to strengthen the States’ role in the ASEAN bloc increasing confidence among Asian leaders that Washington will act as a bulwark against China – neither bowing to it nor over-provoking it – as well as a potential source of trade deals.
“The new US government can take a more proactive step in engaging ASEAN as a whole in terms of its Indo-Pacific and various other strategies,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Peng Nian, assistant fellow at a national institute in China’s Hainan province, also believed proactive behaviour will follow. “Biden hopes to regain support from US allies and rebuild global leadership by reviving the bilateral and multilateral alliance network in Southeast Asia. He can be expected to engage again with Southeast Asian states – Vietnam and the Philippines in particular – to compete with China and contain its rise.”
In a December perspective report for the Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean socio-political research centre, senior fellow Ian Story and visiting senior fellow Malcolm Cook noted that overall, US-Vietnam relations did very well under Trump, but there were downsides.
“Hanoi probably regretted the president’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Vietnam stood to gain the most from America’s participation, and it has also rejected US accusations of currency manipulation,” the report said.
On the upside, the report insisted that bilateral relations are likely to advance over the next four years. “Biden will continue to pursue tough policies towards China, although Vietnam does not want to see an overtly confrontational relationship develop between two of its largest trade partners,” it continued. “But the Vietnamese leadership does hope to see stronger US diplomatic efforts, especially in the Mekong region.”