Joe Biden
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The victory of Joe Biden against the incumbent United States (US) president the highly contested 59th quadrennial presidential election may have significant implications for the country’s foreign policy in Asia.  Apart from being the deputy of President Barack Obama for two terms, Joe Biden also severed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a long-time. Therefore, we can expect for a comprehensive Asia policy from Mr. Biden, a leading figure in the US foreign policy circles for more than four decades.

As a vice president, Biden played a significant role in developing the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. During that time the US recognized that Asia was becoming the world’s political and economic center of gravity. The doctrine intended to promote multilevel collaborations on issues related to trade and investment, good governance, security and climate change involving the US and its key allies in the region. The US signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with eleven other countries to halt the signatories’ rapidly increasing dependence on Chinese trade and to rebalance the China centric power configuration in the Asia Pacific region.

However, as a manifestation of his “America first” policy, President Donald Trump Trump’s withdrew the US from the TPP in 2017, resulting in a leadership vacuum in the trade bloc. Moreover, the Trump administration downplayed the “pivot to Asia” concept in order to endorse the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy at a Glance

The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as a strategic concept was first introduced by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. Later, it became the cornerstone for President Trump’s policy in Asia.

The FOIP strategy makes references to investment, intellectual property, transparency in trade, and connectivity in the region. Rhetorically, the strategy called for a commitment to promote transparent and accountable governance and to safeguard “rule-based international order” across the Indo-Pacific. However, the FOIP was primarily developed to counter the increasing influence of China in the region. The Trump administration openly declared China as a peer-competitor of the US and started to confront Beijing in multiple fronts involving strategic, economic, political and diplomatic maneuvers.

File photo of naval ships during the Malabar exercise
Image source: The Print

The Indo-Pacific strategic doctrine also revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, involving the US, Japan, Australia and India as a manifestation of an “enhanced balancing” against China (Lee, 2020). The Trump admiration viewed the Quad as a defence alliance, on which India acts as the western anchor and Japan and Australia serve as the eastern and southern anchors respectively of the Indo-Pacific region. Recently, the members of the Quad took part in a naval war game in the Bay of Bengal.

A Change in Rhetoric?

Following the election result, a rhetorical change on the Indo-Pacific strategy can be traced in recent telephone conversations between President-elect Joe Biden and leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, the key US allies in the region. Instead of using the phrase “free and open,” Mr. Biden affirmed the US commitment in formulating a “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region. This new narrative on the region indicates both continuity and shift on the US policy in Asia in the upcoming days. It suggests that the upcoming Biden administration is likely to follow the existing Indo-Pacific focused Asia policy to counter the emerging strategic challenges posed by China. However, the new narrative also sounds more pragmatic in nature as it did not openly call for an ideological competition with China. A strategy focused on “security and prosperity” has more potential to generate broader support for the US in the region.

Pivot Back to Asia?

The upcoming Biden admiration will also have the options to introduce a “Pivot to Asia 2.0” strategy or to relaunch the Obama-era pivot strategy. We may see a new name in Biden’s Asia Policy, but his administration will follow the strategic architecture on Asia developed by his predecessors.

Leaders and trade ministers of 15 Asia-Pacific nations pose for a virtual group photo during the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on November 15. Photo: EPA

On 15 November 2020, China and 14 other countries in the region signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, resulting in the creation of the largest tariff-free trading bloc. Against this backdrop, Joe Biden as a president would want the US to join the TTP trade bloc or some other forms of regional trade arrangement excluding China in the upcoming days. However, Biden will face “difficult challenge” from the Congress to operationalize any multilateral trade bloc as it did not approve the US involvement in the TPP/

A Value Based Asia Policy?

The Trump administration has been reluctant in actively promoting democratization or defending human rights abroad. However, Joe Biden is expected to take a proactive role in this regard. He has also pledged to host an international “Summit for Democracy” soon after taking over the charge in the Oval Office to “renew the spirit and shared purpose” of the Free World. Thus, it suggests his commitment to openly facilitate democratizing and promote values like human rights and good governance at the global level. As a result, the Biden Administration might find it difficult to engage with some countries in the Indo-Pacific region having poor human rights records (e.g. the Philippines) or one-party system (e.g. Vietnam).

Today there is a bipartisan consensus within the US that countering China in the Indo-Pacific region has become a fundamental feature of US foreign policy. The US will continue to confront China’s increasing supremacy in military, artificial intelligence, 5G and other emerging technologies. However, we may also witness some US-China cooperation in climate change, public health and other nontraditional security issues.   

Joe Biden will inherit the office of the US presidency while the country is facing significant domestic problems (e.g. a pandemic, racial tension, economic recession). Thus, the domestic issues are likely to dominate the initial days of the Biden administration.  However, as the center of global political and economic gravity continues to shift rapidly from west to east, a key challenge for Biden administration will be to quickly come up with a comprehensive policy for the Indo-Pacific region to safeguard US interests and reaffirm its credulity as a security guarantor to its key allies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Team Eastern Interest.

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