TOKYO — As China flexes its muscles, President-elect Joe Biden is offering assurances to America's top allies in the Asia-Pacific region that he is not going to be a soft touch.
The threat from an assertive China was not explicitly mentioned in the readouts, but it loomed over the exchanges with Japan, where there are memories of an Obama administration that many saw as soft on Beijing, experts said.
“The President-elect underscored his deep commitment to the defense of Japan and U.S. commitments under Article 5,” Biden’s team said, referring to the two countries’ joint security treaty that commits the United States to respond to any attack on Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga went further, saying that Biden gave “a commitment” that Article 5 would cover an attack on the Senkaku Islands, a chain of five rocky outcrops administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
Even better for Japan, Biden brought up the issue of the Senkaku Islands, Japanese officials said. That repeats an explicit commitment made by President Barack Obama in 2014.
“For Japan, that was received with a sense of relief,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a professor at Meikai University, noting the two men had also agreed to cooperate on security across the Indo-Pacific region and to meet at an early stage. “For Japan, I think the talk was nearly a perfect score.”
With the world struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and the United States distracted by its marathon electoral process, China has been seizing the moment to assert itself. On Wednesday, China dramatically intensified its clampdown on Hong Kong, a subject of bitter dispute between Beijing and Washington.
Chinese coast guard ships, meanwhile, have been ratcheting up the pressure around the Senkaku Islands, appearing in the nearby waters almost every day this year, more than ever before.
Beijing also released draft legislation this month that would give its coast guard vessels the right to fire on foreign ships involved in illegal activities in waters claimed by China.
Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, welcomed Biden’s comments. But he said the fact that each new U.S. president had to repeat the same commitment to defend Japan and the Senkaku Islands was paradoxically a sign of doubts about the relationship.
“If the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Senkaku is solid, we wouldn’t have to keep doing this,” he said.
President Trump’s term in office, however, has been a roller-coaster ride in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trump publicly committed to the alliances with Japan and South Korea but demanded much more money from both countries for stationing U.S. troops there. He was popular in some quarters for his perceived tougher stance on China than Obama, and he tried to engage with North Korea, which won him sympathy in Seoul. But his mercurial nature also rang alarm bells.
In his call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Biden said he looked forward to working on shared challenges, “from North Korea to climate change.”
South Korea’s presidential Blue House put more stress on its agenda, saying Biden promised “close cooperation on solving North Korea nuclear issues.” It said China was not mentioned.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, welcomed Biden’s pledge on North Korea but predicted concerns that the diplomatic process with Pyongyang will be further stalled under his administration.
Compared with Trump, though, many in Asia are looking forward to a steadier hand under Biden.
“It's a great thing that we don’t have this highly uncertain and unpredictable president anymore, after January next year,” said Michishita, although he noted that there could still be substantial disagreements.
Biden’s phone calls came after Beijing gutted Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday by allowing the disqualification of lawmakers deemed “unpatriotic.” Four pro-democracy legislators were forced out, triggering a mass walkout of opposition lawmakers.
Chongyi Feng, an associate professor in Chinese studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the move reflected Beijing’s aim to consolidate its position while much of the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, and in the United States by Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to Biden.
“It was a brutal move,” he said, “and they are very smart in that sense as well.”
In June, China imposed a national security law for Hong Kong with immediate effect, as the United States was consumed by civil unrest over police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Feng said China’s government recognized the strategic opportunity of the domestic distractions in the United States and Europe. But Beijing has also been careful about which fights it picked at this time, given the domestic challenges on its plate, such as a slowing economy.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has yet to congratulate Biden for his win, and the Foreign Ministry said this week only that it “noted” the Democrat’s claim of victory.
Victor Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University and a former Foreign Ministry official, called the approach “cautious and prudent and legally correct,” even as he said officials hoped a Biden administration would bring some improvement in U.S.-China relations.
“China does not want to be seen as jumping the gun,” he said. “It’s purely a precautionary measure.”
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China’s actions in Hong Kong constitute “a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration,” referring to a treaty between the two countries signed in 1984, before the handover.
Dou reported from Seoul. Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.