Every administration in the United States, sooner or later, has to cope with Asia, or China within Asia. There’s no exception for Joe Biden, alongside his all-star team in foreign policy and national security. Beginning with Biden’s personnel appointments – which included new positions like the Indo-Pacific coordinator and multiple China directors at the National Security Council – the signal that Washington will further prioritize U.S. Asia affairs is getting stronger and less ambiguous.
Two Cabinet officials – Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin – are scheduled to visit Japan and South Korea later this week, in the first high-level official trip of the Biden administration. Austin will then head to India, which New Delhi views as a positive step toward the Quad enhancement. The visit assumes great significance in the wake of deepening military ties to counter China’s growing power, and ultimately, to restore the U.S. leadership throughout the region.
Over the past two decades, the United States has consistently exerted itself toward the achievement of Pax Americana, by possessing and maintaining an edge over its challenger in the East. From George W. Bush’s re-orienting diplomacy in East Asia to Barack Obama’s “Asia-Pacific Rebalance” strategy to the Indo-Pacific Vision under Donald Trump, a more intensive and sophisticated engagement has been witnessed, along with modernizing U.S. relationships with allies, a defense-centered presence, and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific. The region, therefore, is undertaking a transition from a Cold War bipolar frontline to a U.S.-dominated security and institutional architecture where its proactive footprints permeate almost every corner.
Furthermore, in order to maintain its fundamental strength in the region, the United States has adopted a comprehensive economic strategy. Its investment in the Asia-Pacific was worth around $955 billion in 2019, nearly a fourfold growth from what it was 18 years ago, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Free trade arrangements with trading partners offer the United States an extensive network for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Asia-Pacific Rim countries account for more than half of the trillion dollar club and therefore are a direct engine behind U.S. growth and employment.
Nonetheless, things might not always proceed as the hegemon anticipates. Due to the financial crisis and waves of tumult amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the debate about whether the United States has turned into a declining power goes back and forth. Proponents of the “decline” narrative contend that the country is being further torn apart as a result of political polarization and a growing inclination toward obstructionism between two parties in the Congress, as well as the continued expansion of presidential power. The national will, therefore, cannot be as effectively exerted for collective action as it used to be, which severely reduces the U.S. capability to mobilize its political resources to participate in global governance and the framing of international order. This trend has been evidently bolstered during the Trump administration. Guided by the logic of “America First,” an array of moves including the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East suggested a departure of U.S. foreign policy into strategic retreat. More than that, unilateral actions had also damaged long-standing alliances, leading to overdraft on its credibility as the city upon a hill. And that image was heavily battered by the violence in the U.S. Capitol on January 6. “So much for the peaceful transfer of power, for American exceptionalism, for our being a shining city on a hill,” bemoaned Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
While such rhetoric may recede slightly with Biden in office, its long-term impact will continue to reverberate through Washington for years. In an effort to restore the faith in Pax Americana of audiences both at home and abroad, he now confronts a scissor-style pressure, coping with both declining and rising. And that is why his administration moved to host the first-ever virtual meeting among leaders of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia – the so-called “Indo-Pacific Quad” summit. The summit confirmed the promise of U.S. return into world affairs, reiterated by Biden and his officials on different occasions. The U.S. will seek to repair, sustain, and strengthen its leadership within the multilateral mechanism by quickening the pace and widening the scope of engagement with regional institutions, similarly emphasized by Hillary Clinton in Hawaii a decade ago. For the 46th U.S. president, the logic within Washington remains constant: Pax Americana is built upon the stability of an intimate U.S.-led community. To weaken the influence of China, the potential regional hegemonic power, while avoiding direct confrontation, an offshore balancing strategy, involving a mixture of strong national power and a solid alliance system, therefore is more needed than ever.
India’s role in such a strategy has long been recognized. As an emerging Asian power averaging at least 4 percent GDP growth rate per year, India’s ambition to raise its voice on the international stage, along with the swing of its political stance, makes it a perfect candidate for U.S. engagement. The recent China-India border dispute may further push India toward the side of the United States, with a rising demand for security assistance. If President Obama’s definition of the U.S.-India relationship as the “defining partnership of the 21st century” was the start, the 2015 “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” and the subsequent Department of Defense “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” in 2019 marked the official and bipartisan integration of India into the U.S. regional security framework as an strategically vital fulcrum. Most likely, this defense-centered partnership may expand to more extensive cooperation during Biden’s term, including climate change and clean energy.
Furthermore, to empower and mobilize U.S. partners and allies requires Biden to first demonstrate his commitment to the region. And a display of muscle never gets old. Biden has a two-fold goal: to reverse the perceptions of the United States as being weak and ineffective in responding to China under Obama administration, while being not as overly confrontational as Trump. Biden’s first step is strengthening the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific, but without making proactive moves. Despite established military support across the area, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has recently proposed an additional $27 billion budget request for Congress from 2022 to 2027, with $4.6 billion for fiscal year 2022. Those expenses encompass cutting-edge technology, logistics, and intelligence-related items to establish a more complete combat system when deterring China.
Inheriting the political legacy of the Obama administration and modifying it based on the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is one of the priorities of Biden’s agenda. The next question is how long it might take this effort to reach fruition given the lasting pandemic and economic slowdown in the United States. For Biden, persuading a domestic audience to naturally incorporate China and Asia affairs into the framework of his “middle-class foreign policy” may be the most difficult part.