The Financial Times (FT) reported on December 2 that the incoming Biden administration in the United States is considering appointing an “Asia czar” in charge of coordinating its Asia policy across federal agencies. The newspaper notes that the idea is being considered by Jake Sullivan, the incoming U.S. national security adviser. It has named Jeff Prescott as the top contender for the position.
Prescott previously served as deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden.
While sources who spoke to FT emphasized that the proposal to create a single point-person for Asia policy is still under discussion, with several options around the responsibilities for the Asia czar under consideration, “one possible permutation would involve naming three senior NSC [National Security Council] directors to manage three geographic portfolios under a tsar,” the newspaper reported, with each of three NSC senior directors being responsible for China, India, and other U.S. allies and partners in the region.
As many analysts, including my colleague Sebastian Strangio, have pointed out, in many ways, the tasks for the Biden administration when it comes to Asia are cut out: reaffirm commitment to U.S. allies in the region by ending the Trump administration’s uneven regional engagements; emphasize diplomacy, which saw a diminution given the Trump administration’s penchant for overstating the military’s regional roles; and, most importantly, keep the eye on the ball when it comes to China. To what extent a new Asia position ameliorates concerns among U.S. allies and partners that rose to the fore during the Trump presidency, and to what extent the czar manages to streamline bureaucratic processes and dampen inter-agency rivalry, remains to be seen should such a position indeed materialize.
The FT quotes a former national security official as saying that the czar could end up as “one more stop on the inter-agency bus route,” adding to pre-existing bureaucratic bottlenecks.
The proposal to create a new point-person for Asia policy also makes for great optics when it comes to reassuring regional powers, as the FT article notes. But the issue at hand goes beyond the appointment of a single administration official. Instead, regional actors are likely to approach the Biden administration’s Asia policy more holistically, in terms of trying to discern how it wields economic tools, military strength, and diplomatic strategy cohesively to achieve their desired effect.
But this is not to say that individual appointments in the new administration will not play a role. In the run-up to, and the immediate aftermath of, the November 3 presidential elections, some analysts had suggested that one of President Barack Obama’s national security advisers, Susan Rice, could join the Biden administration as the secretary of state. However, almost as soon as the idea started making rounds, in-region experts, including Singapore’s Bilahari Kausikan, expressed grave concern about what such an appointment would mean for Asia. In an August Facebook post, Kausikan bluntly noted: “Susan Rice would be a disaster.”
But, interestingly, as a way of disparaging Rice, he also remarked that Rice “thinks of foreign policy as humanitarian intervention,” suggesting apprehension that the Biden administration’s promotion of liberal internationalism – with whatever baggage that comes with – could lead to a stepdown from the robust position Trump and his team had taken on China. As James Crabtree wrote in a September Foreign Policy article, “The prospect of a Biden presidency … brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing.” At any rate, Biden decided to nominate Anthony Blinken as his candidate for secretary of state and not Rice. Blinken served as U.S. deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
As Biden prepares to assume office on January 20, the task ahead, thus, for him is to not only substantively craft an Asia policy that addresses concerns of regional powers as he puts diplomacy back on the table, but also – through his appointments – hint at its direction.