All eyes on America
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All eyes on America

All eyes will be on the United States presidential election tomorrow, the result of which could indicate whether the weakened ties between the world's largest economy and Asia will improve in the next four years or more.

It is true that the winner, whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump, won't have much time to focus on diplomacy with Asia during his first year given urgent priories at home. Top of the list is how to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still surging nationwide. Also a priority is reviving an economy ravaged by the pandemic as well as the confusing and unpredictable trade policies of President Trump.

But the US should know by now that Asia is a fast-growing economy and home to many countries, notably China, that have begun to move on after bringing the virus under control. Hopefully, Washington won't be too late in the game as it vies with with China to build a stronger presence in the region.

The fact is, the trade war with Beijing hasn't worked out the way Mr Trump said it would. America's trade deficit with China last year was US$345 billion, about the same as in 2016, the year before he took office. China's exports continue to rise, even in the wake of the pandemic, outpacing the increase in US sales abroad.

The phase one trade deal with China, signed in early 2020, has fallen well short of its targets. So far, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, purchases of US goods that China promised to make are about one-third of their commitments. Yes, the pandemic has been a factor but the shortfall is still substantial.

Mr Trump's trade war has cost the global economy billions of dollars, and the tariffs themselves represent "one of the largest tax increases in decades" on average Americans, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation has said.

Average US tariffs on imports from China remain at 19.3%, more than six times higher than before the conflict began in 2018. Chinese tariffs on imports from the US average 20.3%. The president claims the tariffs are paid by China but this is false. In fact, importers pay those taxes and pass them on to American consumers in the form of higher prices.

If Mr Biden wins, he is widely expected to lead the reentry of the US into the Trans-Pacific trade deal, now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and that could worry Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Aimed at the curbing Beijing's rise, the original 12-nation pact was championed by former Democratic president Barack Obama. US participation could draw in South Korea, Indonesia the Philippines and possibly others wary of China's predatory practices and territorial expansion.

More US-China competition is probably inevitable, but how a US administration handles it is the key to promoting positive changes in the relationship, says Clayton Dube, director of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California.

By working with trusted allies and showing Beijing collectively that "change ultimately benefits China and failure to change would harm China", the US leadership has a better change of getting Beijing to agree to its terms, he was quoted as saying by Nikkei Asia.

What concerns Southeast Asia in particular is US policy toward the South China Sea, about which the Trump administration has not had a lot to say. Experts believe Mr Biden would do more to engage Asean allies to strengthen American leadership in the region.

A Biden approach would focus not only on "the confrontational side of China policy" but also on "how to address the local concerns of our allies and partners" and "try to put a floor under the US-China rivalry", explains Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Mr Biden's vice-presidential running mate, Kamala Harris should be highlighted as well in my view. The 55-year-old California Democrat was born to two immigrants and has Asian roots. After their divorce, she was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist, so she grew up engaged with her Indian heritage. We can expect Ms Harris can help to engage with Asia if the Democrats win.

In any case, we eagerly await the election result and subsequent developments in hope that it will ultimately strengthen the US commitment in Asia Pacific.

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