By and large, the past year has been a healthy mixture of continuity and change in Washington’s foreign policy, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

In particular, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden embraced his predecessor’s tough policy toward China, thus exacerbating the festering Sino-American “new Cold War” from the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea to the high-stakes realm of trade and high-tech competition.

Washington also doubled down on its burgeoning defense and strategic ties with Indo-Pacific “middle powers,” thereby strengthening alliances with Japan, Australia, India and the United Kingdom. The upshot is the further institutionalization of U.S.-led security partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as “the Quad,” as well as AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S.).

An even greater source of Sino-American tensions is the Biden administration’s decision to build on its predecessor’s expanding high-level diplomatic as well as advanced defense cooperation with Taiwan, a self-ruling island that is considered as a “renegade province” by China. Amid rising cross-straits tensions, Biden even went so far as to reiterate, on multiple occasions, Washington’s commitment to come to Taipei’s aid in the event of all-out war with Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations managed to not only reboot its frayed relations with Washington, but also adopt a more decisive stance on the most pressing regional issue, namely the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. What’s incredible is that ASEAN managed to achieve this without undergoing any significant institutional reform, namely revisiting its inefficient “consensus-based” decision-making process.

But after a year of calibrated shadowboxing, the U.S. and China are sleepwalking toward direct confrontation over a whole host of issues, especially Taiwan and the South China Sea. As for ASEAN, Cambodia’s reassumption of the regional body’s rotational chairmanship could pose a renewed challenge to ASEAN centrality on the most urgent challenges in the region.

Initial misgivings

Notwithstanding his unmatched experience in foreign policy, Biden’s presidency triggered a great measure of handwringing among many observers. On one hand, U.S. allies and strategic partners worried over the prospect of a premature Sino-American rapprochement at their expense.

Although viewed skeptically by traditional allies from Europe to Australia and Japan, former U.S. President Donald Trump was lauded by front-line Asian states that have been at the receiving end of Chinese territorial and maritime assertiveness in recent years. This is why Biden’s predecessor enjoyed relatively high approval ratings in places such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India.

In Taiwan, in particular, many worried that a Biden presidency would mark a softer approach to China, broadly echoing the Obama administration’s emphasis on engagement, rather than confrontation. Meanwhile, other critics feared the implementation of a recklessly ideological foreign policy, given the Biden administration’s unequivocal emphasis on promotion of democracy and human rights.

After all, the U.S. president pressed ahead with its plan to host the first-ever Summit for Democracy, which ended up excluding a whole host of key U.S. partners, from Singapore to Saudi Arabia. And far from assuaging fears over a new cold war, Biden has gone so far as declaring, “We are in a competition with China to win the 21st century.”

Defying naysayers

In his first year in office, however, the Biden administration has largely proven its critics wrong. Over the past year, Washington has managed to split the difference by simultaneously revitalizing ties with alienated allies in Europe and Asia, doubling down on its commitment to democratic values as well as democratic allies such as Taiwan, as well as maintaining robust communications channels with China’s top leadership.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has consciously adopted pragmatism in dealing with problematic allies such as the Philippines, which has lurched toward China under authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte. Neither Biden nor his “alter ego,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have openly criticized the human rights record of the Filipino president, who happened to be among the invitees to the Summit for Democracy.

Thanks to its proactive vaccine diplomacy, the Biden administration also managed to win over hearts and minds across Southeast Asia, including in the Philippines, where Duterte decided to restore the all-crucial Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in gratitude for millions of U.S.-made COVID-19 vaccine donations.

ASEAN nations, among the biggest beneficiaries of pandemic-related aid from the U.S., were also pleased by three U.S. Cabinet-level visits in recent months, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken visited all key capitals in Southeast Asia.

Encouraged by Washington, ASEAN also began reexamining its fruitless constructive engagement with the Myanmar junta, which has shown no interest in restoring democratic institutions in the Southeast Asian country. Last month, the regional body made the unprecedented decision of disinviting top Myanmar officials from ASEAN meetings, including during the China-ASEAN summit in December.

The coming chaos

Next year, however, could pose three major challenges to the Biden administration’s Asia policy as well as to peace and stability in the broader Indo-Pacific region. First of all, Chinese President Xi Jinping may no longer resist the temptation of taking aggressive action overseas in order to bolster his position at home.

Confronting declining growth, and major shocks in the real estate and digital economy sectors, the Chinese president may opt to up the ante abroad in order to distract from domestic troubles. Should Beijing continue to struggle with its pandemic recovery, Xi may fall for the rally “round the flag” temptation by taking even more aggressive action against Taiwan as well as maritime rivals in the South China Sea.

For its part, the Biden administration is also expected to come under growing pressure by regional allies and strategic partners to deliver concrete trade and investment initiatives in the region. So far, Washington has yet to even provide any concrete detail on a proposed Digital Free Trade Agreement for Asia, let alone a full-fledged successor to the Trump-nixed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Nor has Washington provided any clear alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has wooed countless governments across the region. Simply criticizing China’s economic initiatives won’t simply cut it. As Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keatthe warned, the “U.S. cannot afford to be absent from the region’s evolving economic architecture.”

Finally, there is a great risk of ASEAN regression into indecision, if not dysfunction, as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen dictates the regional body’s direction next year. To be fair, ASEAN ‘s institutional weaknesses, namely its tradition of consensus-based decision-making, has often undermined the regional body’s inability to effectively respond to pressing challenges in its own backyard.

But these underlying deficiencies could be exacerbated in absence of decisive political leadership, especially by ASEAN’s rotational chair. So far, Hun Sen has made it clear that he prefers engagement with Myanamr’s junta, while expressing little interest in alienating his Chinese patron over the South China Sea disputes.

The last time Hun Sen was ASEAN’s rotational chairman, the regional body failed to even agree on a joint communique on the most pressing issues in the region — maritime disputes in the South China Sea (sound familiar?). In short, 2021 — which saw green shoots of proactive diplomacy — could ultimately prove to be the temporary lull before the geopolitical storm.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”

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