It looks like the tide is turning. There was the expected rebound in opinions of the United States after Joe Biden’s November election win over Donald Trump. But relief was always tempered by doubts about the new administration’s ability to turn rhetoric into outcomes and produce an enduring rise in U.S. status and influence.
Recent developments offer grounds for optimism — a genuine shift might be taking place. For sure, it’s just beginning and this trajectory can be easily derailed. But signs are good and are another reminder that it’s never a good idea to give up on the United States.
Biden’s language before and after the election has been consistent. He praised cooperation and consultation, multilateralism and alliances. Once in office, he reversed many of Trump’s most high-profile gestures — withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord, suspension of membership in the World Health Organization, abandoning the strategic nuclear agreement with Russia — and is working on others (rejoining the Iran nuclear deal).
In remarks to the Munich Security Conference last month, Biden called the U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense “an unshakable vow” — reassuring words to any ally — and underscored to a European audience that efforts “to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake.”
Even before taking office, the Biden team worked to turn those words into policy in ways that would reassure Japan. That meant phone calls between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the president-elect in November and again after his inauguration in January. Biden and his security team reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend the Senkakus, always a priority for Tokyo. They worked out a quick deal on host nation support for U.S. military forces in Japan and followed that with a similar agreement with South Korea, removing two perennial irritants to those alliances.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated to Congress the U.S. commitment to its core alliances and called Japan and South Korea “two of our most important allies.” That comment followed release of “interim strategic guidance,” a way station as Biden’s team prepares its National Security Strategy, which should reassure Japan with its warning about an “increasingly assertive” China, which it labeled “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had already launched a global posture review of U.S. forces to ensure that they are ready to support foreign policy priorities — the Indo-Pacific, as Biden noted in his Munich remarks.
Blinken and Austin are visiting Japan and South Korea this week, where they will hold strategic consultations (the Security Consultative Committee, or “2+2”, talks) with their counterparts. It has been reported that Biden will host Suga for a summit in April (COVID-19 permitting), making the Japanese prime minister the first foreign leader to meet the new president in person. All these steps put meat on the bones of Biden’s pledge to put allies first.
One of the most intriguing developments, and one with the greatest potential, has been the evolution of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), which includes Japan, the U.S., Australia and India. I’ve been a skeptic, worried about the military focus of most analysis and Delhi’s readiness to commit to the group. For me, talk of an Asian NATO is laughable.
Last week’s leader-level summit proved that some optimism is warranted, however. The videoconference produced the Quad Vaccine Partnership, the Quad Climate Working Group, and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technologies Working Group. These are valuable initiatives — and a genuine, and strategic, departure from the “hard power” focus that has dominated discussions of the group. This shift also seems to have helped overcome Indian reluctance — a commitment to use Indian manufacturing facilities to develop a billion doses of vaccines can work wonders.
There is a second set of reasons to be bullish on the United States: The demonstration that Washington can produce results, politically — passage of a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package — and practically, with the vaccination campaign. The first is a big deal. Forget debates over whether the bill was bipartisan enough or whether the Democratic Party can hold its progressive and moderate wings together. The bottom line is passage of a historic bill that never altered its bottom line.
Apart from showing mastery of the political process — paralysis doesn’t have to be the norm — the legislation will provide a boost to national and global economies that should remind the world of U.S. power and influence. The latest economic outlook from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts that the bill will bump global growth to 5.6% in 2021, an increase of 1.4 percentage points from its December prediction (4.2%).
Much of that expansion reflects a substantial upward revision of U.S. growth estimates, from 3.2% in December to 6.5% in March. If correct, this will be the first time in 45 years that the U.S. economy grows at a rate equal to or faster than that of China. And even that might be low: Goldman Sachs adjusted its GDP forecast for the U.S. and it now expects 8% growth in 2021 for the fourth quarter compared to the same quarter last year and an unemployment rate of 4% at the end of 2021, which will drop to 3.2% in 2023.
A big “if” is a successful vaccination campaign to allow the U.S. economy to reopen. Here again there are reasons to be optimistic: As of Tuesday, the U.S. had vaccinated more than 71 million people, the largest number of any government, and another demonstration of U.S. competence and capability.
A third development should also inspire confidence: news that Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, and his predecessor Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska, after the Northeast Asia meetings. China called the meeting a “strategic dialogue,” a description Blinken flatly rejected when talking to Congress.
He instead characterized it as an opportunity to identify key “concerns that we have with Beijing’s actions and behavior that are challenging the security, prosperity and the values of the United States and our partners and allies” and said engagement will only follow if there are tangible progress and outcomes on those issues.
The eagerness to meet Blinken — going to the U.S. during a stop on the return leg of a trip to talk to allies — indicates that China is unnerved. Confirmation of that interpretation is the effort to frame in the most flattering way possible — claims that the chat is a “strategic dialogue” and is at the U.S. invitation — what looks like a scramble by China to get facetime with senior U.S. officials. Chinese nervousness suggests that the Biden team is making progress.
There is another possible indicator of progress, but it won’t be visible until after this article is printed. If the joint statement from the SCC meeting explicitly condemns China’s incursions into territorial waters around the Senkakus — media reports suggest it will — then that will constitute a ratcheting up of pressure on China. The statement from the last meeting in 2019 expressed only “serious concern about, and strong opposition to, unilateral coercive attempts to alter the status quo in the East China Sea.”
It’s early days yet, but signs are good. Hopefully, the U.S. will stay on course and Japan will join it in the creative thinking and institutional rearrangements that are required to keep the region and the world peaceful, stable and prosperous.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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