In the recent month a number of top officials of the Biden administration have visited Asia and the Asia Pacific region as part of their foreign policy emphasis on multilateralism and partner building. With an emphasis on Asia, President Biden has stated that the United States foreign policy would focus on a multilateral approach in the region, involving closer co-ordination with allies and regional bodies. While the Biden administration may not follow President Trump’s transactional approach, the larger goals of maintaining the United States’ "pre-eminence" in the region; protecting a "liberal" political and economic order; the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula; and deeper co-operation with India and the member states of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) remain the same.
Between March 2021 till date, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry have made multiple visits to the region with stops in Bangladesh, China, Mongolia, India, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam apart from Japan and South Korea. An unofficial delegation of former US Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg also visited Taiwan to mark the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, for which President Biden had voted as a senator. Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Singapore and Vietnam further added to the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with key partners in Southeast Asia. During the visit Vice President Harris spoke of the America’s commitment to the international rules-based order and the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes shared interests of the United States and its partners and allies.[i] She added that the United States will support its allies in the region against Beijing’s intimidation and claim of territories in the region. Apart from these in person visits, the officials of the Biden administration have been holding virtual meetings with their counterparts in the region on a regular basis. The attention to the region is with an aim to overcome the unilateralism of the Trump administration while building a credible response to the growing influence of China.
The Visit by the U.S. Officials
The growing China-United States competition has captured significant attention in recent years. There is a growing realisation in the United States that China has emerged as its main challenger in the international arena. To check China’s growth, the United States is taking steps to strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness vis-à-vis China through a focus on partners and allies.
In Asia, the United States has significantly expanded its activities in the region, seeking to advance its strategic, political and economic interests. Washington is building its policy to address the challenges posed by China with both deterrence and engagement. On the security aspects, the visits by Secretary Austin have been to largely assure allies and partners that the United States remains committed to the region. This assurance comes at a time when China is modernising its military. (China is has the largest defence budget in Asia and internationally is second to the United States.) China also has numerous territorial disputes in the region. The United States is pursuing countries of the region to engage with U.S. defence sector through sale of defence equipments, enhanced engagements between the militaries and increased military exercises. The U.S. navy has increased its exercises with partners in the region. The idea is that the security of the United States depends not just on its own strength but also on that of its allies and partners around the world. It has been acknowledged that the competitive edge of the United States has eroded with the rapid modernisation of the Chinese military forces. The Indo-Pacific is the priority theatre for the United States Department of Defence (DoD).The selection of Asia for Secretary Austin’s inaugural trip and the first visit by the newly appointed Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino to India underscores the growing importance of the region in both the Pentagon’s strategic planning and America’s economic interdependence with the Pacific. The Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy has in the recent years focused on the threat that may arise from the ‘great power’ competition with China and Russia. Currently the Pentagon is reviewing the U.S. Strategy towards China through a 15-member task force. For fiscal year 2021, which ended on 30 September 2020, Congress funded $2.2 billion in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to counter Chinese influence in the region and increase cooperation with Pacific allies and partners.[ii] The Pentagon is supporting an increase in the funding, to include more than five billion dollars for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative apart from other DoD investments[iii] and greater investment in troops, missile detection and weapons in the region in response to China’s growing military capabilities. The Biden administration is also focused on increasing the engagement with the QUAD member states. The QUAD is a dialogue mechanism between four nations that share common views on maritime cooperation, economic development, and security. Today the QUAD agenda has broadened to include issues such as climate change, technological innovation and more recently the Covid-19 vaccine distribution. The United States is now looking to convene an in-person summit of leaders of the QUAD countries with a focus on infrastructure that will help counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Within the Quad, Japan has the most experience in infrastructure development projects, with South Asia and Southeast Asia being the most obvious choice for the project. Nonetheless, the projects remains in initial stages.
In the political and economic sphere, China- United States relations remain complex. As the largest trading partner of the United States, the second largest economy of the world and a large market for American products, the Biden administration would have to engage with China. The China-U.S. trade war began in July 2019, with the investigation of unfair trade practise of China and President Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on around US$34 billion of imports from China, including cars, hard disks and aircraft parts. China retaliated by imposing a 25 percent tariff on 545 goods originating from the U.S. worth US$34 billion, including agricultural products, automobiles and aquatic products. In January 2020, the two nations signed the Phase One trade deal.[iv] The deal has not reduced the trade deficit and tariffs continue to be in place but trade between the two nations continues. The Biden administration hasn’t said whether it plans to continue with the phase one deal and is currently reviewing U.S. policy toward China. In the meantime, President Biden has signed an executive order to analyse global supply chains in four industries that were strongly affected by the pandemic. These include computer chips, large-capacity electric vehicle batteries, pharmaceuticals, and critical minerals in electronics.[v]
The United States is aware that it would have to review its China policy as China tries to expand its influence overseas through its economist assistance. China is the largest official creditor to the developing world. Chinese diplomats have spoken of the economic and public healthcare challenges posed by the pandemic and presented China as a reliable partner for the region on its path to recovery. Indeed, the region has been a key focus of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy, accounting for 29 percent of its total vaccine donations and 25.6 percent of its global vaccine sales since the beginning of the pandemic. Accordingly, in recent months, the Biden administration has also increased its own vaccine diplomacy efforts to the region, with 3 million doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine dispatched to Vietnam, and additional shipments made to other Southeast Asian nations, some via the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX facility. By the middle of August 2021, the U.S. had donated 27 million doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia with close to 23 million doses to South and Central Asia[vi]. The delay in exporting excess vaccines despite requests by nations and the WHO has led to questions of United States commitments to its allies and partners. While the increased U.S. outreach will be welcomed in most Southeast Asian capitals, challenges and differences will no doubt remain.[vii]
The Biden administration has recognised that the United States is in completion with China including in science & technology and innovation, in which China is making rapid advances. The United States has emphasised that technology both civil and defence would be the new battle grounds for the wars of the future. The White House is wary of Chinese cyber-attacks on its institutions and industries especially critical industries such as electricity and oil and gas pipelines. In July 2021, the U.S. Justice Department accused the Chinese government of teaming up with criminal gangs to commit widespread cyber attacks, including one on Microsoft that affected tens of thousands of organisations. The Trump administration had highlighted the misuse of U.S. visa provisions by Chinese nationals to gather intelligence and other information from both civilian and military industries. The threat posed by cyber attacks has proliferated during the pandemic as hackers exploited vulnerabilities exposed by employees working remotely. The growing competence of the Chinese to conduct cyber attacks and its deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure will have to be addressed by the new U.S. administration. While the U.S. has voiced its concerns, it has, as yet, not initiated any action.
The United States major challenge in the region remains one of credibility as a reliable partner. The reassurances from the United States that it will continue to aid and assist its allies and partners is being questioned with the chaos in Afghanistan with the American withdrawal and the delay it showed in sending Covid-19 vaccines to the regional partners.
Asia and the Indo-Pacific are regions of critical importance to the United States. They also represent the regions where it will face major challenges. China is the prominent economic and military power in the region apart from the United States. Despite the challenges posed by China, which have been visible for a while, the United States has not been able to define and effective strategy for the region. The way ahead for the United States would be to engage with countries with shared goals. Nonetheless, it has to be done keeping in mind the realities as they exist on the ground. The regional countries are unlikely to pick between the United States and China. While the United States is a strategic partner, China is a major presence in the region and intrinsically linked to them through political, economic and through people to people contacts.
Through the visits by its officials, the Biden administration is hoping to strengthen its security cooperation in region and competitive edge over the Chinese military forces. While the Biden administration has spoken of resetting US relations with the rest of the world, particularly traditional allies, how far they will be able to achieve this goal remains to be seen. No country in Asia is looking to make binary choices between China and the United States. The countries of the region are aware that growing competition between the two nations would be detrimental to the economic and security dynamics. They would continue to work with both, China and the United States. The United States would have to build its policies keeping in mind these geopolitical realities.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The White House, “Remarks by Vice President Harris on the Indo-Pacific Region,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/24/remarks-by-vice-president-harris-on-the-indo-pacific-region/, Accessed on 03 September 2021
[ii] Caitlin M. Kenney, “Indo-Pacific commander: Long-range missiles and missile defense are needed to challenge threats from China,” https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/indo-pacific-commander-long-range-missiles-and-missile-defense-are-needed-to-challenge-threats-from-china-1.665308, Accessed on 17 August 2021
[iii] U.S. Department of Defense, “Secretary of Defense Opening Testimony at the Senate Appropriations Committee (as prepared), June 17, 2021,” https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Speeches/Speech/Article/2662114/secretary-of-defense-opening-testimony-at-the-senate-appropriations-committee-a/, Accessed on 17 August 2021
[iv] Sara Hu, “ The U.S.-China Trade War is Still Happening,” https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/the-us-china-trade-war-is-still-happening/, Accessed on 01 September 2021
[v] Eric Martin and James Mayger, “U.S.-China Trade Booms as If Virus, Tariffs Never Happened,” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-22/u-s-china-goods-trade-booms-as-if-virus-tariffs-never-happened,Accessed on 01 September 2021.
[vi] Figures have been taken from the U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/covid-19-recovery/vaccine-deliveries/
[vii] Sebastian Strangio, As Summits Loom, Biden Administration Bolsters Engagement with Southeast Asia,” The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/as-summits-loom-biden-administration-bolsters-engagement-with-southeast-asia/, Accessed on 10 August 2021.