More than 100 days into his term, U.S. President Joe Biden is showing that Asia will remain a key security priority for his administration despite a plethora of vexing challenges he faces at home.
Biden’s team has been quick out of the gates to highlight Washington’s renewed commitment to what it sees as a region at the core of its foreign policy, with the president using a chunk of his first speech to a joint session of Congress to reassure U.S. allies.
“In my conversations with world leaders — many I’ve known for a long time — the comment I hear most often is: We see that America is back — but for how long?” he said.
“My fellow Americans, we have to show not just that we’re back, but that we’re here to stay. And that we aren’t going it alone — we’re going to be leading with our allies,” Biden added.
But the U.S. leader has done more than just pay lip service to allies.
In the more than three months since he took the oath of office, Biden has dispatched top officials to Japan and South Korea, held the first “Quad” leaders’ meeting and concluded a review of U.S. policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea that provides a starting point for enhanced cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.
Perhaps most significantly, he’s shown that his administration will take a tough but nuanced approach to competition with China, which top diplomat Antony Blinken has called the United States’ “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
All of this has come as the administration grapples with the daunting domestic challenge presented by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as protests over racial injustice and the ramifications of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.
“It is reassuring but not really surprising that Biden has focused on Asia this soon in his administration,” said Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii. “He has made it clear that Asia poses the greatest security challenges to the U.S. and this makes it a priority region.”
Gloves come off with China
Following Trump’s hard line — and at times recalcitrant — stance on China, some observers had feared Biden would oversee a return to a more conciliatory approach to Beijing taken during the first term of former President Barack Obama.
Once Biden began putting his team together, a common refrain among critics was that his administration, chock full of officials who served under Obama, would effectively revert to the more accommodating China policies of that administration.
But, as bipartisan views in the U.S. of China as a threat have coalesced and as the administration has been eager to show that the team of old faces is not going to be a “third Obama term,” it has bore little resemblance to the last Democratic White House.
Biden has kept in place Trump’s contentious trade tariffs on China, given a formal OK for U.S. diplomats to visit Taiwan and ratcheted up pressure on Beijing for what many nations have termed a “genocide” against Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. The Biden White House has also spearheaded sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“The Biden administration has surprised some on how strong they have been on their China policy so far,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an expert of international security and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Miller said that although it was widely known Biden would maintain a policy of strategic competition with Beijing, the attention to that relationship — and the direct criticism on a range of issues, including Taiwan and Xinjiang — has demonstrated that it is not afraid to lead on issues that add more friction to an already testy relationship.
Capped off by an acrimonious but firm confrontation with top Chinese officials in Alaska in mid-March, the administration has effectively acknowledged this is the path they are heading down.
“We are not going to shy away from hard topics and addressing them directly with China — nor, by the way, are we going to shy away from taking meaningful action,” one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week.
The administration has also looked to better employ its system of alliances and partnerships in the region to its advantage after Trump’s transactional “America First” approach left many of the United States’ friends skeptical of Washington’s commitments in Asia.
As examples of the urgency the new administration placed on rectifying the situation as soon as possible, it agreed to a one-year stopgap deal on Tokyo’s share of costs for hosting U.S. troops less than a month into Biden’s term. Weeks later, it sealed a similar, but longer-term deal with South Korea. Both agreements came after talks with the Trump White House had stalled over what observers said were extortionate demands from his administration.
The two cost-sharing deals bookended visits by top U.S. officials to Tokyo and Seoul in March — the first overseas trips by members of Biden’s Cabinet. That trip laid the groundwork for the U.S. president’s April summit in Washington with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — who had the honor of being the first foreign leader to meet Biden after he took office — and his scheduled meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this month.
Officials in Tokyo — as well as other allied capitals — have breathed a sigh of relief at the White House’s renewed attention to the region, with some in the Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministries lauding Washington’s Asia focus and praising the effort Biden himself put into building a strong relationship with Suga.
The Biden administration “clearly sees Japan as the key piece to its Indo-Pacific strategy,” Miller said. And while there were initial concerns in Tokyo that Biden might walk back or soften the U.S. stance on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” that Washington co-opted from Japan under Trump, “it remains the core vision to its regional approach,” he added.
As for how its alliances will play into its dealings with Beijing, observers say the Biden administration has taken a far less siloed approach than its predecessor. Rather than going it alone, it has focused on cooperation with like-minded friends as the primary means of pushing back on China.
“We believe that if China is what (Defense) Secretary (Lloyd) Austin has called the ‘pacing threat’ for the United States, then that means our core advantage vis-a-vis China … is our ability to leverage our network of partnerships and alliances,” the senior Biden administration official said. “We think that was a key tool that the United States has at its disposal that the previous administration left on the sidelines, and we have reactivated and are using to the greatest extent possible.”
The Biden team’s efforts to cultivate unity appear to be bearing fruit, especially in nudging Tokyo to take a larger role in tackling other issues of global concern such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
It has also convinced Tokyo — long fearful of alienating its powerful neighbor and biggest trading partner — to join up to a more robust approach to combating activities by Beijing “that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order.”
At the Biden-Suga summit, the two governments for the first time explicitly identified China as the alliance’s top challenge, with both sides noting human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as key areas of concern.
Perhaps most notably, Biden also secured the first reference to Taiwan in a joint statement by the leaders of the U.S. and Japan since 1969. The statement, which came amid concerns over Chinese saber-rattling in the area and highlighted the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” was a powerful signal of Tokyo’s growing worries over a possible contingency over the island, which sits just 110 km from Okinawa Prefecture’s Yonaguni.
Still, critics say that while the Biden administration should be commended for eliminating the Trump administration’s containment rhetoric and overt hostility toward China and the ruling Communist Party, it’s too early to call its foreign policy moves a success.
The Biden administration “has thus far failed to present a realistic strategy” on China that recognizes “the urgent need to stress shared leadership and military restraint over primacy and zero-sum rivalry,” Michael Swaine, director of the Quincy Institute think tank’s East Asia program, wrote in an analysis of Biden’s first 100 days last week.
The current approach, Swaine added, “might be good for domestic politics, but it will not reassure U.S. friends and allies nor move China in desired directions.”
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