Biden and Asia: Modest Progress, Ongoing Confusion

Washington is trying to run three Asia policies at once—and each is missing substance.

Crabtree-James-foreign-policy-columnist5
James Crabtree
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
Biden and Xi hold a virtual summit
Biden and Xi hold a virtual summit
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

As U.S. President Joe Biden completes his first year in office this week, how should his Asia policy be judged? Set against the lofty expectations of his early months in power, the reality has disappointed many observers. Seen against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis with Russia, the current relative calm of the Indo-Pacific looks like a success.

The real problem Biden faces, however, is more complex—namely, he is running three Asia policies at once. One focuses on China, another on the United States’ regional allies and partners, and a third on non-aligned nations, most obviously in Southeast Asia. The last year has underlined the tensions between these often mutually conflicted approaches, creating something akin to an Asia policy trilemma that makes it just about impossible to make simultaneous progress on all three fronts.

Take China first. Biden’s team ditched the pugilistic chaos of its predecessor, laying the groundwork for Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet virtually in November. Their conversation, if hardly groundbreaking, was at least positive in tone. Elsewhere, the administration has crafted a rhetorical middle path. “We are not seeking a new Cold War,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan explained recently. “What we're looking for is effective competition with guardrails.”

As U.S. President Joe Biden completes his first year in office this week, how should his Asia policy be judged? Set against the lofty expectations of his early months in power, the reality has disappointed many observers. Seen against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis with Russia, the current relative calm of the Indo-Pacific looks like a success.

The real problem Biden faces, however, is more complex—namely, he is running three Asia policies at once. One focuses on China, another on the United States’ regional allies and partners, and a third on non-aligned nations, most obviously in Southeast Asia. The last year has underlined the tensions between these often mutually conflicted approaches, creating something akin to an Asia policy trilemma that makes it just about impossible to make simultaneous progress on all three fronts.

Take China first. Biden’s team ditched the pugilistic chaos of its predecessor, laying the groundwork for Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet virtually in November. Their conversation, if hardly groundbreaking, was at least positive in tone. Elsewhere, the administration has crafted a rhetorical middle path. “We are not seeking a new Cold War,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan explained recently. “What we’re looking for is effective competition with guardrails.”

While this sounds sensible, it is less coherent than it appears. So far, at least, Biden’s team has neither pushed the kind of competition that might trouble Beijing, nor eliminated an ongoing confusion about the overall aim of their China policy. Is it to maintain U.S. “strategic primacy,” as former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy stated? Or is it something more akin to the approach outlined by Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Asia advisor at the National Security Council, who said recently the United States seeks “a kind of coexistence with China, with an understanding of China’s critical and important role”?

Campbell is also a central figure in the United States’ second front, namely strengthening its network of Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships, with the aim of balancing China indirectly. Here the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States looks increasingly purposeful. Traditional alliances with South Korea and the Philippines have been patched up. Washington’s friends are also drawing closer to one another, developing new bilateral and trilateral pacts.

The Biden administration is trying to cobble together a new economic policy that talks up engagement in Asia—without doing much to achieve it.

Yet this process, too, comes with complexities, as illustrated by the fierce backlash over last year’s AUKUS pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The subsequent diplomatic crisis with France is said to have dismayed Biden, and will now likely make it harder for Campbell and other officials to push similarly ambitious new deals. More to the point, it is now clear that deepening ties with some U.S. partners risks backlashes from others.

The tension between these two approaches is made clear by two as yet unpublished documents. The United States has hinted that it will launch separate China and Indo-Pacific strategies. The former is expected to be tough-minded. Meanwhile, the outline of the latter was visible in an inoffensive speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jakarta last month, which included plenty of diplomatic boilerplate about “forging stronger connections” and building a “more resilient region.” Whether it actually makes sense to have separate approaches to China on the one hand and Indo-Pacific partnerships on the other is less clear.

Blinken’s remarks in Indonesia underline the problems Washington faces in the third area, namely winning over nations caught in the middle as a new era of geopolitical competition unfolds. To its credit, Biden’s team has at least visited Southeast Asia regularly, with numerous trips from Vice President Kamala Harris on down. More will likely follow. A summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is in the works, while Biden himself is likely to visit Asia later in 2022 to take part in a run of ASEAN-related summits.

Will more substance follow? “One of our most important, if not our most important, initiatives here in the White House, is to do everything possible to upgrade all of our engagement with ASEAN,” Campbell said recently. But so far, details of this upgrade have been scarce, while moves to court ASEAN could still be undermined by attempts to ramp up pressure on China, which makes most ASEAN members nervous.

This trilemma is not unique to Asia. In its tussles with Russia—both today and during the Cold War—the United States had to calibrate separate policies for its main adversary, its allies, and non-aligned states. But the problems Washington faces in Asia remain unusual, not least because of the widely noted gap between the United States’ military strength and its declining economic clout.

On the right, security hawks want Washington to pursue a large military build-up fit to deter Beijing. Yet if the United States does indeed plan to rearrange its global military footprint to balance China, such moves were hard to spot in Biden’s first defense budget last summer, or the subsequent Global Posture Review from the Pentagon. More to the point, if the United States does end up doing more of the military heavy lifting, its risks encouraging allies to free-ride, as many have traditionally done.

Biden’s critics on the left, meanwhile, warn of an arms race in Asia and argue for a greater focus on economic diplomacy and climate cooperation with China. But now there is no chance the United States will take the most obvious route to achieving renewed economic influence and join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by then-President Barack Obama and abandoned by Trump.

As Biden enters his second year, there are more questions than answers about what “competition with guardrails” means with regard to China.

Instead, the Biden administration is left trying to cobble together a new economic policy that talks up engagement in Asia—although without doing much to achieve it—while also aiming to reduce U.S. dependence on China in the name of supply chain resilience. All of this is hard to square in terms of basic economics, not least given how closely intertwined China is with the rest of the region commercially.

Taken together, the record suggests Biden’s team has made modest progress in Asia during its first year. But as the administration enters its second year, there are more questions than answers about what “competition with guardrails” means with regard to China and what greater engagement with allies and partners might actually deliver.

Much now also depends on China’s actions. Last summer Beijing produced a “list of U.S. wrongdoings that must stop” with demands notable for being far less revisionist and aggressive than those now being pushed by Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. In time, Beijing might become much more assertive.

Meanwhile, the list of potential flash points with China looks alarmingly long, from Taiwan to China’s border with India. When viewed from Washington, perhaps the best one can say for now is that Asia remains mercifully free of outright crises. The risk to Biden’s Asia strategy is that this won’t last forever.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire  Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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