Biden and Xi Struggle to Compete in Asia

What do the two superpowers have in common as they woo the region? Flawed strategies.

Crabtree-James-foreign-policy-columnist5
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.
A grid of video screens shows U.S President Joe Biden attends a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders/
A grid of video screens shows U.S President Joe Biden attends a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders/
U.S President Joe Biden attends a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders on Oct. 26, 2021. EyePress News via Reuters

Southeast Asian leaders are on their way to Washington this week to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden for a long-awaited summit. Biden’s agenda for his twice-delayed meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): to stop the region’s drift toward China. But the summit is taking place at a watershed moment for another reason. As the United States and China step up their global contest for influence and power, each is readying new plans to address their respective strategic blind spots. And neither plan is likely to succeed.

All too aware that the United States’ economic clout in the region is declining as China’s market continues to grow, Biden will use this week’s special summit to talk up his forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). A patchwork plan, the IPEF tries to make up for Washington’s new unwillingness to negotiate the kind of market-opening trade deals Asian leaders like—and which China remains happy to strike.

Meanwhile, Beijing is touting a new scheme of its own, similarly designed to patch a hole in its global strategy. China has been unable to push back effectively against the United States’ global network of alliances and its role as a security guarantor—a role that has, if anything, grown stronger since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s why Beijing is now rolling out its Global Security Initiative, first floated by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum for Asia last month but ill-defined so far.

Southeast Asian leaders are on their way to Washington this week to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden for a long-awaited summit. Biden’s agenda for his twice-delayed meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): to stop the region’s drift toward China. But the summit is taking place at a watershed moment for another reason. As the United States and China step up their global contest for influence and power, each is readying new plans to address their respective strategic blind spots. And neither plan is likely to succeed.

All too aware that the United States’ economic clout in the region is declining as China’s market continues to grow, Biden will use this week’s special summit to talk up his forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). A patchwork plan, the IPEF tries to make up for Washington’s new unwillingness to negotiate the kind of market-opening trade deals Asian leaders like—and which China remains happy to strike.

Meanwhile, Beijing is touting a new scheme of its own, similarly designed to patch a hole in its global strategy. China has been unable to push back effectively against the United States’ global network of alliances and its role as a security guarantor—a role that has, if anything, grown stronger since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s why Beijing is now rolling out its Global Security Initiative, first floated by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum for Asia last month but ill-defined so far.

Take the IPEF first. First mooted last year, the idea was dreamed up by U.S. officials to fill the gaping hole left in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy when then-U.S. President Donald Trump walked out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2017. That move is often lamented by U.S. partners in Asia, who hope the United States might return to it at some point soon. Both Biden and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are by all accounts set against the CPTPP, seeing such trade deals as a sure route to domestic political calamity. Hence, the IPEF: designed to suggest some kind of positive economic agenda but, in truth, a thin replacement that will do little to slow down most Asian nations’ ever deeper economic integration with China.

The result is a mess, with Washington offering a deal few actually want.The IPEF will be a major talking point at this week’s summit, which Biden attempted to hold twice before, only for it to be delayed when too few Southeast Asian leaders could attend. Kurt Campbell, Asia coordinator for the U.S. National Security Council, recently claimed that building deeper ASEAN ties would be a major Biden priority for 2022, a belated recognition of the region as a critical battleground for Sino-U.S. competition. Yet, IPEF omens are not promising. The framework focuses on areas varying from supply chain resilience and clean energy to taxation and corruption as well as new rules for “fair and resilient” trade, such as asking partners to sign up to high labor standards. Traditionally, emerging nations such as those of ASEAN sign up to these kinds of onerous requirements because they get the sweetener of tariff cuts and market access in return. But because the administration has promised to protect domestic workers and producers, which requires shielding them from foreign competition, the IPEF offers no U.S. market access. For ASEAN, it’s an all-pain, no-gain economic deal.

The result is a mess, with Washington offering a deal few actually want. Advanced economies like Australia, Japan, and New Zealand might sign on, mostly because of their close geopolitical ties to the United States. Singapore may do so too. But whether crucial geopolitical swing states like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand will do so remains in doubt—let alone smaller Pacific Ocean nations like the Solomon Islands, whose recent dealings with China have been much discussed. Either way, the results will do little to change the basic economic balance between the United States and China. The IPEF will ultimately leave the Biden administration reliant on the same old, unbalanced strategy, where Washington must focus on its military and security heft to prop up its regional influence.

China’s problem is the opposite. It has plenty of economic influence and is growing in military power. But it lacks the broad network of alliances and partnerships that give the United States such security sway, alongside the benefits that accrue from having created much of the world’s existing security architecture in the first place. Beijing will have noticed the extent to which this kind of U.S. power has been on display during Washington’s relatively successful campaign to push back against Russian aggression—whether through the United Nations or U.S.-led institutions like NATO.

It was against this backdrop that Xi announced China’s plans to develop its Global Security Initiative (GSI), which he argued would help to “build a balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture” and “reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism, and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation.” Details remain vague, though this has often been true for major new Chinese initiatives. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, began life as a vague Xi speech back in 2013 before quickly transforming through subsequent announcements into a globe-spanning infrastructure behemoth.

Why China has decided it needs such a plan is obvious. At one level, its leadership is genuinely alarmed at the direction of the global order post-Ukraine. Beijing feels it has little option but to support Moscow, given the more dominant U.S.-Chinese rivalry, particularly in Asia. Where Washington recently produced a new Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing, so Beijing now feels it needs a new global strategy to counter Washington.

There are already signs China is pushing the idea forward. Shortly after Xi’s speech, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China planned to “build a new regional security architecture” that would help to “jointly maintain peace and stability in Asia.” A few weeks later, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng gave a more revealing speech, noting that China would soon “take active steps to operationalize the GSI.”

Some of Le’s arguments were in direct response to Ukraine—for instance, his claim that the GSI would oppose “unilateral sanctions.” The unprecedented use of these tools by the West against Russia has alarmed China, which fears they might also be used against China if it attacks Taiwan. Elsewhere, Le argued that China got too little credit for the steps it has taken in areas from data security and biodiversity to tackling climate change. This suggests China will position the GSI to draw together its varied efforts to win global friends while, at the same time, pushing back against U.S. attempts to target China via groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. All in all, the move may well appeal to emerging nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many of which are skeptical of what they consider Western double standards and the moral clarion calls that have followed the invasion of Ukraine.

Whatever the GSI becomes, however, it is unlikely to succeed in its central objective: replacing the United States as the world’s—or at least the region’s—leading security actor. As they gather in Washington this week, almost every Southeast Asian leader remains keen for the United States to continue to play a major role in Asian security and economics. More to the point, almost every nation on China’s doorstep fears a future of Chinese hegemony. On issues such as the South China Sea, they have learned the hard way that China can be aggressive and coercive—and has little tolerance for smaller countries it sees as standing in its way. Putting that same behavior into a new package cannot disguise the way that China acts in the international system—and nowhere more so than in its own Asian backyard.

Yet even if neither Washington nor Beijing’s new initiatives succeed, the mere existence of flawed projects like the IPEF and GSI provides an intriguing reflection on Asia’s coming era of great-power competition. The two initiatives show that China and the United States are at least aware of their relative weaknesses and are trying to adapt to becoming more appealing to potential partners. But on the U.S. side, the IPEF merely underlines that Washington is no longer willing to shoulder the economic burdens that have historically come with a superpower status, especially if those involve domestic political risks. And for China, there remains little sign it is ready to take up the kind of global security role the United States has long offered: the ability and willingness to develop open, rules-based institutions that sometimes act against Chinese interests—and in the process, building legitimacy for Beijing’s role in the international system.

As the backwash from the Ukraine crisis has shown, both China and the United States are stuck in a relationship with each other that lacks any semblance of trust, where communication channels are closed and opportunities to cooperate are rare. This dynamic is only likely to deteriorate in the future. Simmering hostilities might remain on hold as the Biden administration focuses on Ukraine and until both China’s all-important National Party Congress and the United States’ midterm elections are out of the way later this year. But open, bad-tempered, and intensifying competition is likely to resume soon enough after that. As Southeast Asian leaders touch down in Washington this week, they—and the leaders of other nations caught in the middle—will simply have to grapple with the reality of two superpowers competing with flawed plans for their favor.

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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