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Biden’s 100 Days in Office: Is America really back?

05 May Biden’s 100 Days in Office: Is America really back?

The inauguration of US President Joe Biden brought the promise of the return of America to the global stage, a reversal from the Trump administration’s “America-first” policy. Completing his first 100 days in office, did Biden keep to all his electoral promises?

To mark Biden’s first 100 days in office, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) held the “Biden’s 100 Days in Office: Is America really back?” webinar on 21 April 2021. The session featured views from Ms. Angela Mancini, Partner & Head of APAC Markets at Control Risks and Prof. Khong Yuen Foong, Vice Dean (Research & Development) & Li Ka Shing Professor in Political Science, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Here are some highlights from the discussion. Video excerpts from the webinar will be posted on social media, with a full recording available as premium content for the SIIA Roundtable and Corporate Members.

Promising start, but still early days

The Biden administration has exceeded expectations in their first 100 days according to both panellists. Ms. Mancini said while the administration was facing a triple crisis – COVID-19, the economy and social inequality / social justice issues, it focused mainly on tackling the pandemic, exceeding their goal of 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in the administration’s first 100 days. Prof. Khong argued for the necessity for the Biden administration to deal with all the domestic challenges, especially if America wants to be truly back and at the head of the global stage.

Reversal of Trump’s America-First Policy

In terms of foreign policy, the Biden administration has taken steps to reverse the “America-First” approach the previous administration took. Biden has reached out to allies and strategic partners to tackle functional as well as key issues. This signals that the administration recognises the indispensability of working with others, especially those who share “common values” to deal with existential threats like climate change, nuclear proliferation and great power competition, according to Prof Khong. The revival of the Quad is an example of the Biden administration’s attempt to engage allies.

US-China tensions to stay

While the Biden administration has signalled that it is willing to work with other countries, the strategic rivalry with China remains a key factor to watch. The issue of China as a threat to the US is one of the few bipartisan issues that most US lawmakers agree on. The trade war with China has not abated nor is economic decoupling going away. While the Trump administration was reticent about China’s shortcoming on democracy and human rights, Biden has been more vocal and willing to call China out, according to Prof Khong. Ms Mancini argued that the Biden administration’s approach to relations with China is to compete where they must and cooperate where they can and the recent announcement about the US’ willingness to work with China on the climate change issue is promising.

The geopolitical rivalry between the US and China is expected to intensify in the coming years as China grows. Prof. Khong expects Southeast Asia to be the locus of geopolitical rivalry as the two powers compete to win allies to their side. This is exemplified in vaccine diplomacy, where both China and the US alongside Japan, India and Australia, are working to leverage their comparative competencies to produce and distribute vaccines for Southeast Asian countries. While ASEAN countries have indicated that they would prefer not to choose between these two giants, it would become increasingly difficult to maintain neutrality between the two in the coming years, according to Prof. Khong.

Biden untested by major policy challenges

However, both speakers cautioned that Biden has not been tested by a major foreign policy challenge. Once borders reopen, Ms. Mancini said it would be critical to watch how Biden deals with the gruelling schedule required of a president- travelling and giving public speeches again. The midterm elections in 2022 would also be a key event to watch in ascertaining Biden’s popularity in the longer term.