Danny Russel on US Asia Policy Under Biden

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Danny Russel on US Asia Policy Under Biden

The vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute (and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) on what we can glean from the administration’s recent Asia outreach.

Danny Russel on US Asia Policy Under Biden
Credit: Official White House photo

The Biden administration has placed the Indo-Pacific front and center during the past two months. From the virtual Quad summit – bringing together the leaders of Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S. for the first time – earlier this month to the overseas trips by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the United States made its focus on the region clear through allocation of that most previous resource: time.

The Diplomat asked Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, via email about the early signals from the Biden administration on Asia policy. Russel was formerly President Barack Obama’s top Asia aide and served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017.

What did you see as the biggest takeaways from the first Quad summit held on March 12?

The March 12 Summit was significant, not just because it was the first leader-level meeting of the four countries, but because it adopted a concrete and affirmative agenda aimed at regional problem-solving and not aimed at “containing” China.

The robust COVID-19 vaccine initiative combined steps to be taken by each of the Quad countries to ensure “last mile” delivery to remote regions of Southeast Asia as well as to bolster the region’s public health infrastructure. By building on the unique capabilities of each country, such as India’s medical manufacturing prowess, the whole of the Quad becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

The brisk and specific timeline for further summits and ministerial meetings signals commitment and seriousness of purpose. The formation of working groups on climate resilience and finance, as well as on facilitating access to emerging technologies, indicate that the Quad’s contribution to regional development won’t begin and end with COVID-19.

What is the impact of having the first in-person trips by Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin be a joint visit to the Asia-Pacific?

This early, joint visit reveals two aspects of the new administration that were hiding in plain sight: Biden’s emphasis on engagement with allies worldwide and the Asia-Pacific region in particular, and his insistence on coordinated and coherent policy execution.

Gone are the days when America’s closest allies are derided as “freeloaders”; gone are the days when each Cabinet secretary said and did their own thing – contradicting each other and then often being contradicted by a presidential tweet.

Most significant of all is the progress made in both capitals by the two cabinet secretaries. Not only did they get substantial increases in host government financial support for U.S. bases and reach broad agreement on key points of strategy, but after years of deteriorating relations between Seoul and Tokyo, they won agreement by both sides to launch important trilateral consultations to enhance alliance coordination.

The first high-level U.S.-China exchange of the Biden administration was hosted not in Beijing or Washington, but in Anchorage, Alaska. What’s the significance of this location versus a more typical meeting in either capital? 

As a practical matter, an “off-site” venue away from the centers of government and shielded from many of the capital’s formalities and distractions makes good sense. Host officials invariably find it hard to escape urgent business when they are near their own offices, and visitors are often obliged to make courtesy calls and speeches. A remote venue reduces those pressures and allows more sustained “time-on-target” for discussions.

Geographically, Alaska is America’s westernmost (and a Pacific Ocean-facing) state roughly midway between the two capitals. Symbolically, the choice of the frozen terrain of Anchorage in March served as a metaphor for the chill in Sino-American relations.

After the U.S.-China meetings in Alaska, how would you evaluate the prospects for U.S.-China relations under the Biden administration?

The meeting in Alaska was not meant as the start of negotiations or the launch of a formal dialogue structure. It was an opportunity for each side to lay out its priorities, to describe its concerns, to ask questions, and to explore prospects for managing or resolving differences.  So, notwithstanding the testy exchanges during the initial press spray, the meeting is unlikely to alter the dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship.

The U.S. and China seem destined to compete vigorously across a broad spectrum of economic, political, and technological domains. But they are neither destined to fight nor to cooperate – the risk of conflict and the prospect for collaboration are both dependent on the choices made in both capitals.

The leaders of both governments are confident in their respective systems, are aggrieved by some aspects of the other side’s behavior, and are determined to stand firm and not yield on matters of principle and national interest. Public attitudes have soured on both sides and domestic politics favor hardline approaches over compromise.

Yet the leaders long ago forged a strong personal relationship that can serve as a stabilizing factor. Neither wants conflict and each is focused on important domestic priorities that benefit from stability in international relations. Both are seasoned veterans with years of experience wielding power and managing risk.

There is at least some prospect for managed – or even healthy – competition between the U.S. and China of the sort that brings out the best in the two countries and avoids the traps of a destructive strategic rivalry. But navigating to a more stable and cooperative relationship will require significant skill and wisdom on both sides.

You were intimately involved in the Obama administration’s Asia policy, and there are quite a few familiar faces in the Biden administration. Where do you see continuity with the Obama era approach, and where are the biggest differences?

There is considerable continuity with Obama’s Asia policy, beginning with the emphasis on America’s allies and partners and demonstrating a due regard for consultation and diplomacy. In each of those administrations, the secretary of state’s first overseas trip was to Asia and the Japanese prime minister was the first leader to be received in the Oval Office. I also find the weight given by the administration to good policy processes as a return to the Obama pattern of deliberate, thorough, and inclusive decision-making in foreign policy. The “values agenda” – championing and defending universal human rights, democratic principles, and international law – is another point of commonality.

What differentiates the Biden approach to the world today is today’s world, which has been profoundly altered over the past four years. Polls consistently show that international confidence in the U.S. has been severely damaged. American leadership positions in various international and regional organizations have been abdicated and many countries that once chose to align closely with the U.S. are cautiously hedging. Pressing domestic priorities and urgent challenges at home significantly impact the administration’s foreign policy agenda.  Meanwhile, China has grown dramatically in terms of wealth, ambition, and national power at the same time as its ruling party has veered towards behavior that is ever more autocratic at home and assertive abroad.

Thus, veterans of the Obama administration, including President Biden himself, are compelled to alter and adapt their approach to Asia policy to accommodate the new realities of this decade.

The Myanmar coup is arguably the first acute foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration. How would you evaluate the steps taken thus far, and what should come next?

The Biden administration was clear, quick, and straightforward in condemning the military’s overthrow of Myanmar’s legitimate, democratically-elected government. Biden has appropriately added targeted sanctions against specific military leaders and their financial networks to his condemnation of the coup. He has used diplomatic channels to discourage further violence against protestors and to try to secure the safety of Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. The administration has galvanized clear and direct statements by the U.N. Security Council and the four Quad leaders.

What should have happened already, and should certainly come next, is action by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). High-level ASEAN consultations with the United States on the situation in Myanmar have so far been blocked by the ruling junta, and mild statements by the group’s foreign ministers have had little effect. The nine other members of ASEAN know full well that the brutality of Myanmar’s military and its disregard for democratic principles are damaging to the country, the organization, and Southeast Asia as a whole. ASEAN leaders need to find a way to engage with the U.S. and other key partners to engineer a coordinated strategy for putting Myanmar back on a sustainable path.