A New Pivot to Asia
The fuzzy goodwill between Biden and America’s Asian allies will soon be tested by China’s growing power.
As he takes a fresh look at Washington’s China strategy, President-elect Joe Biden faces hard choices. China has become a powerful challenger to the United States’ post-World War II global primacy. To make matters worse, the political coalition that propelled Biden to victory is deeply divided on how to deal with China. There is strong opposition among Democrats to the total political confrontation and complete economic decoupling from China that outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration articulated toward the end of its term. Among progressives, there is deep resistance to a cold war with China, even as they want to intensify the pressure on Beijing on human rights. Powerful corporate interests on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, many of them with close ties to the Democratic Party, would love to go back to business as usual with China. American workers and their advocates are wary of ceding even more manufacturing jobs to China in the name of renewed economic globalization. Many other Democrats see climate change as the most important challenge to humanity and believe the United States must cooperate with China to mitigate the threat.
In responding to these competing demands, Biden smartly avoided specifics during his successful campaign for the presidency. He argued that China is not a threat but a competitor and that this competition can be addressed and won by the United States. To do this, Biden would take to industrial policy to rebuild traditional U.S. strengths. Criticizing Trump’s tariff wars as a blunt instrument, Biden promised to develop a more sophisticated strategy of economic engagement and competition with China. If Trump trashed U.S. allies as freeloaders and free riders, Biden would rebuild Asian alliances to produce a more effective coalition to persuade China to abide by the rules. Soon after the election was called in his favor, Biden was quick to call allies in Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra. He also dialed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country has emerged as a major regional partner for the United States in recent years. That Biden is not Trump and will replace chaos in Washington with competence has sent strong messages of reassurance to most Asian allies. Biden’s long foreign-policy experience and the team of familiar figures from the Obama and Clinton administrations have generated much comfort in Asian capitals.
All this fuzzy goodwill between Biden and Asia, however, will be tested sooner rather than later by at least three structural contradictions. The first is rooted in the tension between the much needed engagement with China on economic issues and the diminishing domestic margins for a political accommodation on trade and related issues. Washington’s imperative to engage Beijing is natural given the intensity of economic interdependence between the two countries and the real difficulties of decoupling. Many of Trump’s economic policies were in response to the real and perceived costs of intense trade with China among an important section of American society. Biden has promised not to pursue trade deals with China that disadvantage American workers but also rejected calls for decoupling as unrealistic.
This unresolved tension surrounding the future of economic engagement with China—and more broadly, of economic globalization—feeds into the United States’ relationship with its Asian allies. These allies were also targeted by Trump’s tariff war and would like to see Biden return to a more familiar policy embracing free trade and economic globalization. Until now, the domestic costs of the United States’ commitment to free trade, which its allies have come to like so much, seemed manageable. But that is likely to change now amid growing domestic demands for fair trade. China has seized the moment to present itself to its Asian neighbors as the true champion of globalization and a more credible long-term economic partner. Many of these neighbors, including long-standing U.S. allies, have bought into Beijing’s argument. They celebrate the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Asia-wide free trade agreement that includes China, while mourning the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership under the Trump administration. Biden’s promise to work with allies to compel China to abide by the rules will be tested by continued domestic pressure in the United States to change at least some of the rules of globalization that Washington has, until recently, championed.
The Long War
The conflict between North and South Korea has remained virtually unchanged since the end of the Korean War, despite important shifts in global and regional power alignments. The United States has contributed to this stalemate in Korea by maintaining an essentially immobile Korean policy.
Japan Can’t Go Its Own Way
Today, Japan is no longer an obedient follower of the United States. Japan cannot remain in that comfortable role even if it dearly wishes to do so.
China Is No Threat Without Military Might
U.S. power may recede gradually in the coming years, and the unavoidable decline in Japan’s influence will heighten the sense of China’s regional preeminence. But to have a real collision, China needs a military that is capable of going toe-to-toe with the United States.
China’s Rise Foretells a Potential War
China cannot rise peacefully, and if it continues its dramatic economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.
—John J. Mearsheimer
The second test for Biden in Asia is the tension between the U.S. forward military presence and China’s growing military capabilities. U.S. primacy in Asia since the end of World War II was made possible by a massive differential between the military capabilities of the two powers. This allowed the U.S. military to operate with impunity off China’s eastern shores. But Beijing’s rapid military modernization in recent decades has significantly reduced the margin of U.S. superiority in the Western Pacific. It has also dramatically increased the military imbalance between the capabilities of China and those of its Asian neighbors. Addressing these two trends will demand an ever higher U.S. military commitment to the region amid calls for a measure of U.S. strategic retrenchment or a strategic accommodation with a rising China.
Meanwhile, talk in Washington of engaging with—and perhaps accommodating—Beijing reinforces a number of familiar trends. China is already teasing the incoming Biden team with ideas of a reset of relations post-Trump involving a careful management of cooperation and competition. Too much emphasis on U.S. cooperation with China will raise fears of abandonment among U.S. allies, who recall with horror the soft and unfocused approach to China by previous U.S. administrations, including that of former President Barack Obama. Canberra, New Delhi, and Tokyo have all joined Trump in standing up to Beijing. Any diminishing resolve in the United States would leave these allies facing huge costs with China. Yet there is no escaping Washington’s compulsion for measured engagement with Beijing. Whether it is promoting U.S. economic security, coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or addressing climate change—three of the four top priorities (along with the problem of systemic racism) put forward by the Biden transition team—negotiations with Beijing are inevitable. Too much U.S. emphasis on confrontation with China, on the other hand, leads to Asian fears of entrapment and neutralization. Finding the right mix will not be easy.
Third, regardless of the immediate choices Biden might make, there is relentless Chinese pressure on the U.S. alliance system in Asia and regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which have long been at the heart of the regional order. As China towers over its neighbors and is increasingly viewed as a peer to the United States, the credibility of U.S. alliances in the region is beginning to weaken, while Asian deference to China’s concerns and interests has grown. This has most visibly affected some long-standing U.S. allies such as Thailand and the Philippines. Two more resilient allies, Japan and Australia, have withstood these pressures, but there are strong sentiments in both countries against a policy of antagonizing China. Even India, which has the most intractable problems with China, is not immune to Beijing’s draw. Despite major territorial aggression by China during the pandemic, many within the center and left of the Indian political class are leery about deeper security ties with the United States. Some of them blame the Modi government for moving too close to Washington and inviting Beijing’s wrath. These arguments conflate cause and effect in the triangular dynamic between Beijing, New Delhi, and Washington, but they do enjoy considerable political traction.
Many of China’s neighbors are steadily drifting toward either neutrality between Beijing and Washington or simply acceptance of being dominated by their giant neighbor. Smaller countries such as Laos and Cambodia might not have much choice. The darkening shadow of Chinese power has steadily muted the collective voice of ASEAN, which is struggling to reach a consensus on China and fend off aggression against its members. The region now tends to see China’s regional assertiveness and U.S. efforts to counter it as equivalent. Even the victims of Chinese aggression urge the United States not to provoke China. They all plead with Washington not to make them choose between the two superpowers.
The Biden administration’s answers to the fundamental tensions inherent in the U.S.-Chinese-Asian power dynamic must be sought in three areas. First, Washington should temper the gospel of globalization with a recognition of the importance of national economic sovereignty. Second, the United States should move toward a new framework of strategic burden sharing with allies. And third, it should align with Asian nationalism. All three goals, however, are in conflict with America’s internationalist tradition.
On globalization, the United States cannot continue to let China play fast and loose with the ideas of economic internationalism and national sovereignty. Beijing clothes its ambition for regional economic dominance in the rhetoric of globalization but at the same time champions state sovereignty when it’s convenient. Rather than frame its policies as a choice between the ideologies of “America First” and “globalism,” Washington needs to articulate the case for a new mix of sovereignty and internationalism. That is the only basis for designing a new set of rules for international economic cooperation that can win lasting domestic political support. After all, the difficult decisions on the equitable domestic distribution of economic globalization’s costs and benefits are intensely political—and must necessarily be made and owned by national governments.
Although burden sharing has long been part of U.S. foreign-policy rhetoric, it has always ceded ground to the presumed imperatives of U.S. leadership. Trump’s clumsy efforts to force the issue of burden sharing on U.S. allies has only made matters worse. But looking from the outside in, it is unrealistic for allies to expect that the American taxpayer and U.S. military will forever bear the burden of securing Europe and Asia. The last few years have seen both regions recognize this problem, but there will be a strong temptation to backslide, with allies betting that Biden will take them back to the happy, free-riding days of old. For the United States, too, it is important to recognize that its leadership is creating a moral hazard among its allies who refuse to take responsibility for their own security, expect the United States to do the heavy lifting, get complacent about threats, and criticize Washington for confronting these threats. Regional responsibility and burden sharing are critical for making the alliances survive the new challenges.
In advancing toward sustainable globalization and alliances, the United States must necessarily align with Asian nationalism. The idea of nationalism is anathema to the mainstream of U.S. foreign-policy thinking, which has long been steeped in the tradition of internationalism. This attitude is shared by the establishment in both North America and Europe, yet we have seen the return of nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic as part of the backlash against excessive globalism. In Asia, however, nationalism is not only considered a virtue but is deeply entrenched in politics, society, and intellectual traditions thanks to the living memory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.
At the same time, Asia is not unfamiliar with internationalism. The 20th-century national liberation movements were all influenced to one extent or another by different versions of internationalism—including pan-Asianism, pan-Islamism, Third Worldism, and communism. In the end, though, deep disappointments with all these political fashions saw the entrenchment of nationalism as the dominant ideological force in Asia. The Chinese government itself relies on nationalism—not communism—to sustain its hegemony over domestic politics. If Chinese nationalism is widely seen as a major threat to stability and security in Asia, equally strong and similar national sentiments in other Asian countries, at least in the larger ones, ought to be an integral part of constructing regional stability. Asian nationalists are natural allies for the United States in its long-standing objective of preventing the rise of a regional hegemon. (To be sure, history has left many conflicting nationalisms on China’s periphery that Beijing has been adept at exploiting. That problem has endured during the strongest period of U.S. alliances and must be managed in the new era, too.)
The United States, unfortunately, has had a complex history with Asian nationalists. During World War II, the United States inspired Asian nationalists with the promise of supporting their liberation from European colonialism. But after the war, Washington abandoned the Asian nationalists when it backed those European powers—such as France in Indochina and the Netherlands in Indonesia—that wanted to retain their colonies. The imperative of securing Europe against the newly emerged Soviet threat inevitably demanded Washington’s deference to European interests in Asia. Once the tide of anti-colonialism overwhelmed European imperialism in Asia and the communist challenge began to rise in the region, the United States was open to supporting nationalists. Some of the regimes backed by Washington, such as South Korea under Park Chung-hee and Indonesia under Suharto, were certainly of questionable character. But many of them eventually turned to democratization after they survived the challenges from communism. And in the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington began to treat Asian nationalism with disdain and presumed that it had the answers for the challenges of state building in the region. But U.S. democracy promotion was always an uncertain trumpet, not easily amenable to consistent pursuit, and inevitably triggered deep resentment in Asia. It made it easier for China to paint the United States as a meddling outsider. It also fed into the Chinese narrative of “Asia for Asians,” a useful tool for legitimizing the effort to replace Washington’s primacy with Beijing’s regional hegemony.
In 2020, a summer of protests and violence in the United States and a messy presidential election process underlined the importance of Washington getting its own house in order. In his victory speech, Biden was right in underlining that the United States must “lead not by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” The United States must also recognize that it cannot defend Asian countries against threats they do not recognize or openly acknowledge. Rather than unilaterally framing the political challenges confronting Asia and providing answers for them, Washington should bet that Asians will find their own answers. After all, Asian nationalists prevailed against Japanese imperialism, European colonialism, and communist internationalism in the last 75 years. They are not going to be simply rolled over by China’s power.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said the “world does not organize itself” and the United States must take the lead. However, it is one thing to assist the region and entirely another to impose solutions designed in Washington. The Biden administration can help by presenting new ideas for tempering globalization through sovereign decision-making that addresses the need for equitable growth, lending support to those seeking to build democratic institutions, and strengthening Asian allies’ military capabilities to stand up to new forms of hegemony. Trump and his team often talked about the value of nationalism and sovereignty, but that message was directed at U.S. and occasionally European audiences, rarely Asian ones. Trump’s campaign against the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese predatory capitalism found some resonance in Asia and beyond. Biden and his team now have a chance to build on these efforts and make Washington an attractive partner, not a sanctimonious preacher. China has certainly had some success in winning over Asian elites. But among populations more broadly, views of China are turning negative in response to its assertiveness. The Biden administration can test the durability of China’s elite capture by tapping into the natural instinct of Asians to preserve their hard-won independence. The United States and its Asian partners have a shared interest in redefining the terms of international economic and security cooperation in ways that enjoy strong domestic political support. If they are successful, they might even encourage China to modify its current course and join the new consensus.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja
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