Joe Biden is committed to succeeding where his predecessors failed. He recognizes the centrality of Indo-Pacific policy to America’s interests in the 21st Century and he has tenaciously sought to put in place a new US strategy prioritizing the region even as global events have conspired to distract his administration.
George W. Bush’s foreign policy was hijacked by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. The Global War on Terror and the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq became his primary foreign policy focus and overshadowed whatever successes he may have had elsewhere (see, for example, PEPFAR.)
Barack Obama suffered from pivot interruptus. His first secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, tried to lead an administration effort to shift priorities to address the rise of China but economic issues at home and continuing challenges in the Middle East kept derailing the effort so that Obama’s Asia policy never coalesced and his trips to the region were largely duds (except for the parts that were actively embarrassing.)
Donald Trump’s corruption, lies, and attacks on democracy distracted from his foreign policy disasters. And his impeachment for attempting to blackmail Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, revelations that he would have pulled the US out of NATO, and his bromance with one of the world’s most despicable dictators, Vladimir Putin, distracted from equally terrible Asia policies that included a desire to pull US troops out of South Korea and a bromance with the world’s most despicable dictator (small country division), Kim Jong Un. Oh, and there was also his family’s murky relationship with the Chinese and the fact that apparently we came much closer to war with North Korea in 2017 than anyone knew at the time (which was before Trump’s thunderbolt moment with Kim Jong Un.)
Biden, by contrast, made it clear that trans-Pacific issues would have a place high atop his foreign policy and national security agenda from his first days in office. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the administration’s “Foreign Policy for the American People” in March 2021, the US-China relationship was singled out for its paramount importance. Days later, a sometimes acrimonious meeting between Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Chinese officials in Alaska underscored both the importance the administration was giving to the relationship and the difficult issues at the heart of it. Less than a month after that, our rivalry with China was a dominant theme in Biden’s first joint address to Congress.
As with the other presidents in this century, multiple forces were competing for precious administration bandwidth. Engineering an end to the COVID crisis while coping with new variants and seeking ways to promote economic recovery would have demanded the full resources of almost any other administration. But internationally, the world was also presenting complex problems. The administration’s decision to finally bring an end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan, critical to shifting focus to the new priorities identified by Biden and his team, posed enormous logistical and security challenges. Yet, within days of managing the largest post-war evacuation of personnel in modern US history and the shocks of a terrorist attack on the Kabul airport, the Biden team was following through on its Indo-Pacific plans.
The Kabul airlift began on August 15, 2021 and ended two weeks later. Even as the evacuation was continuing, Vice President Kamala Harris led a trip to Asia to underscore the importance of the region to the administration. By mid-September, the Biden administration and the governments of the UK and Australia announced a major new security pact, AUKUS, to promote security in the Indo-Pacific region. On September 24, the Biden administration hosted the first-ever leaders meeting of the Quad, another Asia-Pacific Alliance, this one featuring Japan, Australia, India, and the US It was a remarkable show of commitment and focus, especially in light of recent history.
By the beginning of 2022, of course, another global crisis arose. The fact is, that crisis had been brewing for months as intelligence sources made it clear Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. The administration stayed on top of those developments and in fact, their warnings helped activate and shape a Western response in support of the Zelensky government and the Ukrainian people. With Russia’s invasion on February 24, the administration took the lead providing not only direct support to Ukraine but within a NATO response that has been unprecedented in terms of its unanimity, level of coordination, and effectiveness. Massive sums and military resources have been made available and complex diplomatic and military coordination has been taking place daily as the war has progressed.
Russia’s aggression against her democratic neighbor has been a watershed for geopolitics. NATO is likely to be enlarged with Sweden and Finland joining. A new period of protracted tension with Russia is now likely. But still, the US has maintained its focus on the broader global picture. In March, US and Chinese officials met in Rome to discuss Ukraine and to send a message to the Chinese that the US and our allies would both appreciate their help in moderating the Russian advances and that we would look very unfavorably should the Chinese provide military support to Russia. The US, recognizing that Putin and China saw themselves as strategic partners, also saw the relevance that weakening Russia would have on its Indo-Pacific plans — and, the effect Russian success might have in tempting China to act in a similar way against Taiwan.
For this last reason, the US very actively has sought to ensure Asian countries were engaged in the alliance against Russia. And the US has worked to blunt some of the historic ties that countries like India, which plays a key role in the Quad, have to Moscow.
This past week, at an ASEAN Summit hosted by the administration in Washington, these themes were underscored as efforts to tighten ties with the Southeast Asian nations were strengthened. But rather than making the discussion Ukraine-centric, the issues raised were largely about deepening cooperation as part of a broader Indo-Pacific Strategy. Pains were taken to underscore that the goal is not to counter China but that the US did want to move forward with strengthening regional priorities in a way past administrations did not. At a US Institute of Peace event, NSC Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said, “There has been a sense that in previous [American] administrations had set off to focus on the Indo-Pacific but found ourselves with other pressing challenges that draw us away. I think there is a deep sense that can’t happen again. ”
The ASEAN event has been followed by President Biden’s first trip to Asia, which is taking him to South Korea and to Japan. Along with the ASEAN Summit, the purpose of the trip is to deepen critical ties. These include strengthening relations with and between both countries. They include meeting with South Korea’s new, more openly pro-US president Yoon Suk Yeol and discussing ways to expand Seoul’s support for US initiatives in Ukraine, in the region, and regarding the defense of Taiwan. In addition, there will be a focus on reinforcing America’s commitment to deter threats from North Korea. Another objective will be advancing an administration plan called the Indo-Pacific Framework that will strengthen economic ties with and between countries in the region. For an administration with an allergy to new trade deals, the IPEF is perhaps the next best thing and discussions on the trip will focus on how broad a group it might become.
Before it began, National Security Advisor Sullivan said, “The message we’re trying to send on this trip is a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road, to define the security architecture of the region, to reinforce strong, powerful, historic alliances, and we think putting that on display over four days bilaterally with the ROK and Japan, through the Quad, through the Indo-Pacific economic Framework, it will send a powerful message. We think that message will be heard everywhere. “
While Sullivan did not mention China in that framing and while Campbell has argued that the steps being taken are not to “counter China” the reality is that few believe that (and those who say they do may be channeling former President Clinton by arguing about the definition of “counter”). Lawyerly language aside, make no mistake, the region sees the trip as part of a US Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain the perceived threat posed by a rising China.
Indeed, a critical element of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is to be about China without appearing to be all about China. In part, that is because as tense as the relationship has become, there is no reason to inflame it unnecessarily. In part, that is because the administration is skeptical that much progress can be made in direct negotiations with China and that the real opportunities exist in expanding and deepening ties throughout the region with more like-minded countries, countries that share concerns about China’s muscle- flexing in the neighborhood.
Nonetheless, among those who see the strategy as being at its core an effort to contain China are the Chinese. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post framed the trip as being part of a “Cold War strategy.” Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi, a former ambassador to the US, warned Sullivan in a phone call on May 18 that “the US side has taken a series of wrong words and actions to interfere in China’s internal affairs and harm China’s interests” and that “ China will take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests. ”
China’s tough talk is unlikely to deter Biden or his team. This administration has already distinguished itself by its commitment to following through on resetting America’s international priorities in a way others who hoped to do so in the past could not. That said, the reality is that Chinese saber-rattling is almost certain to make it easier for Biden to realize his commitment to strengthening US alliances and capabilities across the Indo-Pacific region while maintaining a tough stance with Beijing.
PRC belligerence will also do something else that a US foreign policy stance has seldom done in the past 20 years, and that is to produce bi-partisan support for the president — because while Democrats and Republicans agree on little these days, one thing on which there is something approaching a consensus among Americans across the political spectrum is that we need to be wary of China and prepared for the new era its ascendancy will bring. Fortunately, preparing us for that era is very clearly and consistently the top priority of President Biden and his foreign policy and national security team.