International relations | USA

Can the US reach out to Asia?

Under Donald Trump, the US turned its back on its Asian allies and openly challenged Peking. Now it is up to Joe Biden to pick up the pieces 

An illustration of an eagle emerging from behind a part of the Chinese flag and flapping its wings wildly. In front of the flag are three tall smoking chimneys.

When Joe Biden won the US presidential elections last November there was a collective sigh of relief among traditional supporters of the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Whether it was Japan, South Korea or Australia, they continue to see Washington as key to pushing back against Beijing’s economic, military, and political coercions.

In his presidential inaugural address, Biden signalled that they could rely on him, saying that the United States would be a “strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.” 

But what exactly should this political partner in America’s Asia policy look like - and how will the USA position itself in relation to China in the future? Early signals came when Biden placed seasoned Obama administration officials in key positions including Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State and Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense.

The White House has also created a new position within the National Security Council to focus on the Indo-Pacific led by Kurt Campbell, a former Assistant of State for East Asia under Obama, who had played a key role in crafting the U.S. strategy to rebalance towards Asia.

Together with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Campbell penned an essay entitled “Competition Without Catastrophe: How American Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China” in “Foreign Affairs” magazine late last year to outline their vision for a China strategy of the United States. In it, Campbell and Sullivan argue that “coexistence (with China) means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved,” and that even if the two countries cooperate on certain issues, that would not mean the United States would hold back from pushing against China on other issues.

For U.S. allies, the words of Biden’s foreign policy team are comforting, not least because they have established relations with key personnel already. As one Japanese diplomat in Washington put it, “we already have a working relationship and know what to expect”.

Building on that established working relationship with like-minded nations based on trust will be crucial as Washington navigates how to cooperate and compete with Beijing at the same time. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and its successor the Comprehensive and Progressive TPP (CPTPP)  is now attracting more potential member countries including the UK and South Korea as well as China.

Meanwhile, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP) brings together all 10 ASEAN member countries of Southeast Asia as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan as well as China.

Although it failed to include India, one of RCEP’s most striking achievements has been to bring together a disparate group of countries ranging from communist Vietnam and China to advanced economies including South Korea and Singapore.

“After all, even the most ardent supporters of the Obama administration would shy away from declaring that his presidency was able to deliver on the promise of a U.S. pivot to Asia”

The United States, on the other hand, is unlikely to join the CPTPP or move forward with a new trade agreement any time soon. Given the political climate within its borders and the economic as well as social disruptions inside the United States, the Biden administration will inevitably be focused on addressing domestic concerns.

To be sure, what U.S. allies in Asia need above all else is a United States that is resilient and stable, so a focus on domestic issues would be accepted.

At the same time, they will be carefully monitoring whether the rhetoric of the Biden administration about working together with allies and focusing on diplomacy will actually be put into action. After all, even the most ardent supporters of the Obama administration would shy away from declaring that his presidency was able to deliver on the promise of a U.S. pivot to Asia.

The baseline for assessing U.S. commitment to Asia is low. Trump’s reluctance to participate in international conferences in the region means that showing up to the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Brunei this year will be seen as an indication of the Biden presidency refocusing on Asia, and working with allies in pushing back against Chinese incursions.

At the same time, the need for the region to ensure Washington’s reengagement in the Indo-Pacific has never been as acute. Any disillusionment with the United States has hardly led to a turn to China by industrialized nations. Even for emerging markets, the allure of China is limited to its capital, rather than its government system.

Mainland China’s crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong has shaken not only the US and Europe but also Asia. The discrepancy between Xi’s rhetoric of promoting universal values and the reality of Chinese rule is clear. The repression of Uighurs has only highlighted the lengths Beijing will go through to maintain its stronghold on one-party rule, and it is hardly surprising to note that whilst China’s influence within and beyond its border is extensive, it has few admirers.

There is clearly space for the US to get involved and highlight Chinese oppression, make a case for democracy and support of the rule of law. The challenge, though, is whether Washington has the wherewithal to go beyond simply advocating for human rights, equality, and other values that have traditionally played a key role in its foreign policy compass. It remains to be seen if the government will actually take concrete actions to promote them.