WASHINGTON, DC — Vice President Joe Biden expounded upon a litany of reasons for the U.S. to engage in the Asia-Pacific region to an audience at George Washington University on Thursday, not least of which that “there is no Asian exception to the universal desire for freedom.”
Biden was speaking at an event organized by the Center for American Progress on the Obama administration’s elevated engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, the so-called “pivot to Asia.” The speech comes ahead of Biden’s coming trip to Asia, where he’ll spend several days in India and Singapore, and just days after he launched the fifth round of strategic dialogue with China.
Biden held up the economic benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently under negotiation as an example of the need for engagement with Asia and the Pacific. Should the deal be signed by the end of the year, as the Obama administration hopes, it would encompass a full 40 percent of the world’s GDP in a single agreement devoted to normalizing trade relations between the 10 countries it would cover. Biden also stressed the involvement of the Pacific countries in the Western hemisphere and their potential benefit from the TPP.
Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao was in attendance for the speech, in which Biden heaped praise on her country and its ties with the United States. Biden explained that bilateral trade with India has increased five-fold in the last ten years, and lauded India’s lowering caps on foreign direct investment in certain areas. While speaking on the threat of climate change, the Vice President pointed to the expansion of the U.S.-India Climate Change Dialogue Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to on his recent trip to New Delhi as a sign of greater cooperation between the two countries.
While the focus of the talk was Asia-Pacific broadly, Biden spent a large amount of time speaking specifically about the Sino-American relationship, either directly or indirectly. “Many nations have experienced rapid economic transformation that has fundamentally created a new dynamic, rising ambitions and rising tensions,” Biden said, obliquely referring to Beijing’s growth. “But the rules and norms that can predict to deal with both those changes, the order needed, remained incomplete.”
When referring to China directly, however, Biden chose to highlight the cooperation that the country has sought out with the United States in recent months. Specifically, he pointed to the recent announcement that the two states would cooperate on reducing their production of pollutants contributing to climate change. Biden also favorably noted the declaration from Chinese President Xi Jinping that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were an unacceptable threat and applauded Xi’s call for a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
Any notion that the U.S. and China were doomed to conflict was swept to the side. The current and future relationship with China is viewed in terms of a healthy mix of cooperation and competition, the latter of which we welcome, Biden said. “It’s stamped into our DNA,” he went on, “We like to compete. Competition is good for us, so long as the competition is fair.”
Biden also sought to dispel any notion that the shift was in anyway forgotten in the face of other crises that the administration has faced around the world. “We’re all in, this administration, absolutely committed to this re-balance,” Biden said. But he made sure to assuage concerns from Europe and the Middle East that they will be forgotten in the process. He noted that the TPP would actually sync with the free trade talks the U.S. is readying with the European Union. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he asserted. “That’s what Big Powers do.”
As he closed, Biden explained that the reason for America’s success goes beyond its natural resources or luck, but instead the fact that Americans are taught to challenge orthodoxy. “That’s the only way there can be a breakthrough,” he said. All the issues that youth face across Asia and around the world are linked to openness and transparency, Biden opined, to greater rights and freedoms. “No nation has to adopt the same system we have, but it’s awful hard to be innovative when you can’t breath free.”
As CAP President Neera Tanden noted when introducing the Vice President, Biden spoke at CAP’s first event back in 2003, when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the time since, CAP has extended its expertise and put forth policy recommendations in Asia, particularly in South Asia, with recent reports on deepening the U.S.-India partnership and ways in which the two countries can cooperate on Afghanistan.