Biden bodes well for Pacific
And so the Trump era is over.
And with it ends one of the most chaotic administrations in modern American history; one which leaves his successor with no shortage of tasks requiring immediate attention.
Chief among these is taking charge of America’s response to the COVID-19, the official death toll from which has exceeded 400,000 and is on its way to half-a-million.
Then there is the restoration of faith in American’s democratic institutions.
These have been slowly eroded over the Trump years, during which time lying to the press and public alike has become reflexive. So too has disrespect for the institutions of democracy, something which reached its crescendo in the dying days of the Presidency with a storming of the capitol by his supporters and with his connivance.
The ouster of the former President still leaves a long shadow over democracy and a cloud over his own future, with impeachment proceedings against him ongoing and him potentially facing criminal charges with maximum penalties of 25 years.
That amounts to a lot for the new President, Mr. Biden, to reverse.
But he has shown no shortage of willingness to get down to business.
Within hours of taking office, one of the new President’s first acts was to sign up to the Paris climate accords.
That the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution is returning to the Paris negotiating table and rejoining the aim of reducing temperature rises to 1.5 degrees celsius is no small thing and not just for the immediate practical effects it will have.
The symbolism that the world’s most influential nation acknowledges the science behind and importance of climate change will have widespread knock-on effects. But President Biden’s action on climate is unlikely to stop there.
It is being widely reported that he intends to usher in a programme for reducing the United States’ carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.
For the United States to take such a stance will doubtlessly influence other nations which are stubbornly refusing to accept the scientific consensus, such as Australia which is essentially dependent on America for its national security.
For the Pacific region, it is a breath of fresh air to see the world’s most powerful man acknowledge the importance of what we have long stared down as a threat to our very existence.
Having someone occupy the White House who flatly denied the truth about climate was, for us, perhaps the ultimate insult.
But the extent of the changes we can see from the inauguration of a new President in Washington, D.C more than 10,000 kilometres away in the Pacific region extend far further than that.
International observers have noted that the Trump era has been marked by a great intensifying of the battle for influence and soft power in the Pacific between China and America and its allies.
We saw this recently with the near-doubling in aid to Samoa itself in 2018.
China also overtook Australia - America’s typical representative in the Pacific - as the region’s preeminent financial donor with an estimated $USD4 billion in aid pledged to Pacific states in 2017 alone.
To these developments, President Trump responded with a policy of containment that was reminiscent of the politics of the Cold War.
Across the Pacific we saw an unprecedented flurry of increased attention from America and its allies in the forms of new foreign policies, variously titled a Pacific Reset, Uplift, a Step Up and an Elevation.
The former United States Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, made a visit to Palau late last year. The contents of his discussions with local leaders are unknown. But soon after he left the island nation was openly inviting the United States to build ports, bases and airfields.
We also saw the Secretary of the Army, Brian McCarthy, last year announced plans to unveil a new military unit equipped with missile and cyber espionage capabilities to be deployed somewhere in the Pacific in coming years.
“The U.S. Army must be postured in the [Pacific] region for the intensifying competition and, if required, to win in conflict,” Secretary McCarthy said.
“We don’t need any more gunfights; we don’t want anymore; but, if they come, we’re ready.”
Right up until the election that ejected Trump from office we saw an increase in heated rhetoric, with the announcement of plans by the U.S. Coast Guard to start plans to deploy three “cutter” style vessels - which come at more than $80 million each.
President Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the fast-response boats would be deployed to counter "increasing Chinese aggression."
And to counter the "malign and predatory" influence of China in South Pacific waters, and help end the threat to the "rules-based order that's kept the peace since World War II."
We can hardly expect the new President Biden to fold his hand and surrender the Pacific, a region of extreme strategic and military importance, to China. It would be foolish to cast the centrist Democratic as a peacenik with no backbone.
But unlike Mr. Trump, President Biden has a predictable quality that we will welcome.
But Mr. Biden has been in public life since he was sworn in as a U.S. Senator at the age of 30.
He has been running for President since 1987; he has occupied senior positions in the United States Senate on foreign affairs.
He has a long established track record from which we can gain some considerable insight even this early into his administration.
As a Senator, the now President Biden voted for China to become a member of the World Trade Organisation.
As a Vice-President he led fruitful delegations to Beijing and met with Premier Xi Jinping.
It is unlikely that America will drop its renewed focus on building its soft and hard power in the Pacific. But we will almost certainly see a change in the way it goes about doing so and negotiate with less aggression and more predictability than his predecessor.
The way in which President Biden has conducted himself in previous offices shows he is a man dedicated to building alliances, not given to pushing them to breaking point capriciously as his predecessor was.
In the Pacific we can expect a pressure drop in the atmosphere between America and China and a step down from the politics of brinkmanship.
The man President Biden has appointed as his head of Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, wrote recently: “The future [should be] characterised by balance and twenty-first century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence.”
That, we think, is something to look forward to.