World Politics

No question the Biden administration has to appear 'very tough' on China, former Singapore diplomat says

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Key Points
  • The Biden administration will likely maintain a tough rhetoric against China, former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani told CNBC.
  • But it remains to be seen if the administration would listen to other countries in the region before implementing its policies towards Beijing, he said.
  • In Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, Beijing's economic and political influence remains strong.
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SINGAPORE — The Biden administration will likely maintain tough rhetoric against China, a former Singapore diplomat said Wednesday.

But it remains to be seen if the administration would listen to other countries in the region before implementing its policies towards Beijing, Kishore Mahbubani, now a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia."

"I think there's absolutely no question that the Biden administration has to appear very tough on China," he said, adding, "That's very clear because there is a strong bipartisan consensus within the United States that the time has come for the U.S. to stand up to China."

He made his remarks Wednesday morning during Asian hours before Joe Biden was inaugurated.

U.S.-China relations worsened significantly under President Donald Trump as the two superpowers fought a trade war and are competing for technological superiority. In some instances, the U.S. sought to bring countries to its side against China. But in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, Beijing's economic and political influence remains strong.

"The critical thing here is will the Biden administration listen to the countries of the region before they implement any policy towards China?" Mahbubani said. He explained that if the Biden administration starts listening, it would discover that there is a very strong consensus in East Asia.

"Yes, you have to be firm and strong on China, but we also have to get along with China. We have to work with China. We want our economies to recover from Covid-19. So that's the message you'll get," Mahbubani said.

The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

"At the end of the day, I am actually optimistic that behind the very strong rhetoric, there's also an understanding in the Biden administration that they got to work with the rest of East Asia. And frankly, also work with China on critical issues like climate change for example," he added.

U.S. return to Asia

Under the Obama administration, one of the cornerstones for America's pivot to Asia was the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Trump took the U.S. out of that agreement when he first took office in 2017.

The remaining 11 countries in the TPP went on to renegotiate the pact and signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018. Last year, China and 14 other countries signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which became the largest trading bloc in the world, covering a market of 2.2 billion people and $26.2 trillion of global output.

As such, the United States is not involved in either of the mega trade deals involving most of Asia's prominent economies except India.

The TPP was a "gift to the United States because it was a way of anchoring the U.S. presence in East Asia, to ensure that this region doesn't become dominated by China," Mahbubani said.

He explained that unfavorable domestic attitude in the U.S. toward free trade agreements, even ones that can be potentially beneficial to the country, would make it harder for Washington to rejoin the new CPTPP.

"To do a real pivot, the U.S. should find ways and means of coming back maybe in a very subtle and indirect way into the Trans-Pacific partnership," Mahbubani said.