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Biden’s Asian policy, a year later

The following is an excerpt from the ASPI Vice Presidents Danny Russell and Wendy Cutler‘s op-ed originally published in The Diplomat.

Even before taking office on January 20, the American president Joe Biden announced the appointment of an “Asian czar” to the White House, contacted key leaders in the region and promised to meet the challenges posed by the United States’ most serious competitor, China. So, a year into the Biden administration, what about his policy towards Asia and the Indo-Pacific?

Biden and his foreign policy team brought considerable diplomatic experience and a carefully reasoned approach to international affairs, prioritizing national renewal and rebuilding American partnerships and international influence. To some extent, this approach has simply made a virtue of necessity, given the urgency of multiple national issues, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic. But Biden, who had learned a thing or two about dealing with Communists during the Cold War, saw that China’s leaders were convinced that the United States and the West were in decline. They also seemed certain that China had a favorable wind at its back with both a “window of opportunity” and the strong gravitational pull of its economy. The Biden team correctly calculated that unless and until the US shows itself back on a credible path of national rejuvenation, the Chinese side will remain inflexible and uncooperative.

From the outset, the Biden presidency faced far more than the usual set of challenges that greet a newcomer to the Oval Office. At home and abroad, the new administration has faced thorny issues on virtually every front – economic, social, political, health, environmental and geopolitical. Asia has certainly been no exception, although an initial round of initiatives and outreach has regained some degree of confidence in the United States and bought some administration time. These included joining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization on day one, quickly welcoming leaders from Japan and South Korea to Washington, sending secretaries from cabinet and later the vice president visiting the region, and in March to hold a virtual summit with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia to restart the Quad, followed by an in-person meeting between the four leaders in September.

The solidification of the Quad 2.0 is perhaps the most significant Indo-Pacific achievement of the Biden administration in the first year. The first virtual summit and September’s face-to-face meeting in Washington deftly dealt with the critical China issue in jujitsu – forgoing bombastic anti-China invective in favor of a much more subtle and powerful approach. In 2021, the Quad shrewdly focused not on China, but on what the four countries could offer the region through collective action focused on real priorities like vaccine distribution. This work and others pioneered by the Quad indeed challenged China in a race to the top and gave countries in the region something even more valuable than vaccines – a credible alternative to what China was selling. . Going forward, the Quad process will have to continue to deliver on its ambitious promises and find a way to include others, even on a specific basis, but this remains a very creative and effective first step from the Biden team.

In Northeast Asia, the Biden administration has linked up with two consecutive Japanese prime ministers who, thanks to China, are now ready to do much more to strengthen the alliance and regional security. Biden quickly resolved the ugly fight his predecessor had chosen against South Korean subsidies for stationing US forces on the Korean peninsula and deftly handled some of Seoul’s questionable initiatives, such as a thoughtless “end-of-war declaration” that would strengthen the Pyongyang campaign. to delegitimize the American-South Korean alliance. And when it comes to North Korea, no US administration over the past four decades has had much to show for its attempts to curb the growing WMD threat from Pyongyang. Given this reality, an administration’s North Korean policy is best measured by its mistakes, and on this point the Biden team has done well to avoid them. He opened the door to diplomacy but avoided the trap of trying to entice the North with one-sided concessions and quietly bolstered defense and deterrence without the risky bluster of “fire and fury”.

Southeast Asia in 2021 has been tougher ground for Team Biden. The disastrous military coup in Myanmar, setbacks in democratic governance in partner countries, and the region’s half-hearted approach to “getting along” with China have been complicating factors. And although the Biden administration has supported and reinforced the role of the United States in protecting maritime rights in the South China Sea, there is simply no viable diplomatic avenue to manage the conflicting territorial claims between China and small requesting states. Although a surprising number of senior administration officials have been able to travel to Southeast Asia and Biden has joined virtual ASEAN summits, COVID-19 constraints have put a damper on the type of robust American commitment that the region desires. If the plan announced by Biden to welcome the leaders of the region (minus Myanmar) earlier this year materializes, it will be a major achievement, but will have to be followed by concrete initiatives.

Read the full article in The Diplomat.