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Team Biden Should Start With an Asia Pivot 2.0

U.S. policy to contain China will require a lot more continuity with Trump than Biden’s backers would like to admit.

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 6.
Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 6. NICOLAS DATICHE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo revealed many of the dilemmas the United States faces in its attempt to contain China—no matter who wins the race for the White House. On one level, it was remarkable that the meeting of foreign ministers from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States happened at all, given India’s traditional reluctance to antagonize China. But the meeting itself produced scant evidence of new cooperation between the four countries, underlining how hard it is for Washington to coordinate actions even with allies and partners who share its concerns about China’s rising sway in Asia.

Getting more out of this fledgling partnership would be an important challenge for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, if he wins, given his emphasis on a more traditional, multilateral foreign policy. At the same time, he has also promised a tougher approach to China, whose president, Xi Jinping, has adopted a more assertive international posture in recent months—all this means that U.S. policy in the region will require more continuity with U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach than many Democrats would like to admit. But there is no denying that much of Washington’s Asia policy is in a mess. A broader rethink is needed, similar in many respects to the much-derided “pivot” strategy unveiled by then-President Barack Obama back in 2011.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi confirmed that the Quad at least retains its capacity to ruffle feathers in Beijing. Speaking during a trip to Malaysia, Wang accused its members of building “an Indo-Pacific NATO” whose aim was to “stoke geopolitical competition.” Such a description is fanciful. The United States recognized after World War II that a NATO-like body was poorly suited to Asia, where U.S. friends and allies are widely dispersed and have divergent interests. Since its rebirth in 2017 following an earlier failed attempt to establish the new quasi-alliance, the Quad has mostly restricted itself to low-level meetings discussing inoffensive areas like counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coast guard services. This does not mean it is useless, however, or indeed that it should be scrapped, as argued in Foreign Policy by Salvatore Babones. In fact, despite its slow start, the grouping is set to take on gradually greater significance.
There is no denying that much of Washington’s Asia policy is in a mess and that a broader rethink is needed.

India’s changing views lie at the heart of this. Following its recent clashes with China in the Himalayas, New Delhi has largely abandoned its policy of balancing between the United States and China and stepped more firmly into the anti-Chinese camp. Indian policymakers now undertake actions they once avoided as being provocative toward China. Holding the Quad meeting in Tokyo at a time of rising geopolitical tension is one obvious example. Another indication came today with Australia’s announcement that it would join the annual Malabar naval exercise, traditionally a trilateral affair between India, Japan, and the United States—a step India had previously blocked as needlessly inflammatory toward of Beijing. The United States and India are also deepening military cooperation in areas such as anti-submarine warfare, where both nations are worried about rising Chinese capabilities.

Even Quad enthusiasts recognize the group’s limitations, however. Diplomatic readouts from the recent meeting suggest a wide-ranging agenda, much of it slanted toward China, covering topics including disinformation and managing COVID-19. But the four powers could not agree on a formal joint statement. Probably they did not even try. Given this, the idea they might now move forward with plans to develop a NATO-like institution seems especially improbable. Viewed from Beijing, the Quad looks like an aggressive plan to contain China. But in truth it remains cautious and reactive: So far, only the perception of Chinese aggression has pushed its members to cooperate. In the future, too, China’s actions are most likely to spur cooperation further.

This is where the dilemmas for U.S. policy begin. Speaking in August, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun put his finger on the main problem of the Quad’s development. “I don’t think responding to the threat of China in and of itself, or any potential challenge from China in and of itself, would be enough of a driver,” he said. “It also has to have a positive agenda.” Biegun’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, has adopted a far more confrontational posture toward Beijing. So far, Pompeo has managed to do this without spooking the other Quad partners. But there are limits to how far this approach can go, given the three other members still seek to cooperate with China in one form or another.

The Quad nations share common concerns about China and its behavior. All want to avoid a future in which China becomes the dominant actor in the Indo-Pacific region. But they do not share a prescription about what should be done. Even with New Delhi’s recent shift, neither India nor Australia nor Japan wants to annoy China without good reason. All worry about the risks of coercive Chinese diplomacy. Australia and Japan, in particular, have important economic ties to preserve. And all this is doubly true for nations in Southeast Asia, many of which are anxious about China’s role in private but wary of supporting public actions to counter Beijing. “If you talk about hard containment like Pompeo does, no one will join—not even Japan and Australia,” as retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan put it recently in an interview with The Australian.
What remains is an imbalanced approach that relies on military competition but little else.

In all of this, the true danger for Washington is thinking that its approach to Asia is going better than it actually is. Robert Zoellick, a former U.S. trade representative, recently wrote a scathing article suggesting that Trump’s China policy had been a “total failure,” especially on trade. Even beyond this, the list of problems is long. Ties with the three other Quad nations are improving, but relations with traditional U.S. partners such as South Korea and the Philippines are in disrepair. The United States lacks anything approaching an economic agenda that would allow it to build deeper ties with a broader range of Asian nations beyond narrower security concerns. “The administration’s fear of China has led it to imitate Beijing, sabotaging America’s premier strength: fair, innovative and competitive markets governed by the rule of law,” Zoellick wrote in the Washington Post.

What remains is an imbalanced approach that relies on military competition but little else. In early October, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States planned to expand its navy to more than 500 manned and unmanned ships by mid-century. This would mark an aggressive attempt to maintain maritime superiority over China, which currently has 350 ships, compared with the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships, according to a recent Pentagon study. Military expansion is also something of a bipartisan consensus. Michèle Flournoy, a plausible candidate to succeed Esper if Biden wins, recently mused that the United States should develop the capability to “sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”

Whoever the next U.S. president turns out to be, he will need to enhance U.S. military capacity in Asia. China’s naval modernization is likely to continue at a pace that the United States acting alone will struggle to match. Yet previous attempts to rebalance the U.S. military toward Asia and away from the Middle East and Europe have moved slowly. Extra resources will be hard to find in the aftermath of COVID-19. Under any realistic scenario, Washington is going to have to develop a different kind of military relationship with its partners. Even as it does so, it is hard to believe that the Quad is going to be the primary vehicle for this enhanced military cooperation.
For all of its many critics, Obama’s 2011 pivot at least attempted to hit many of the objectives where U.S. policy is currently absent.

A focus on military power and anti-Chinese diplomacy also leaves U.S. Asia policy unbalanced. The former U.S. diplomat Evan Feigenbaum has warned that Americans could become the “Hessians of Asia,” a reference to the German mercenaries hired by the British to fight in the American Revolutionary War. By this, Feigenbaum means that the United States’ allies and partners may come to view it as a useful military counterweight to China but with little else to offer toward solving the region’s many other political and economic challenges. Such an approach would be especially shortsighted given the many pressing concerns that could add up to the “positive agenda” that Biegun mentioned. Should the United States seek to build a collective security system in Asia as effective as NATO has been in Europe, it must do so with partnerships that reflect shared nonmilitary ties, goals, and values.

Measures to help speed up the recovery from the pandemic are one pressing example of cooperation that could deepen and solidify ties. Repairing the global trading system is another, an area where the United States has struggled to lead since its abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and which has been impeded by Trump’s generally disruptive and inconsistent policies. From cybersecurity to rules governing emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence and electric vehicles, there is plenty of ground for nonmilitary cooperation. But again, it is unlikely that the Quad will be the best venue for this to happen. Instead, the United States needs a broader approach. For all of its many critics, Obama’s 2011 pivot at least attempted to hit many of the objectives where U.S. policy is currently absent. It pushed greater military heft in Asia while seeking to repair traditional alliances and build deeper economic cooperation. It might have been poorly executed, but the basic idea was sound. If Biden becomes president, crafting an Asia Pivot 2.0 would be an excellent place to start.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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