The story so far: The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently on his maiden trip across Southeast Asia, which includes meetings in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, a visit that signals Washington’s sustained interest in having strong ties with countries in the region even as tensions with China continue to mount across different policy issues. With the world gradually emerging from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, including economically paralysing lockdowns in many parts of Asia, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden looks to be re-emphasising what was under his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama described as the ‘Asia pivot’ or ‘regional rebalancing.’ Under this strategic approach Washington would seek to deepen ties with likeminded Asian nations, while the unstated goal of balancing the aggressive rise of China as a regional hegemon would very much be a driving force shaping the nature of the parleys. A wide range of policy subjects are included within the framework of this strategic thrust, including maritime security, technology, public health and biosecurity, trade and investment and climate change, to mention some of the important ones.
However, matters took a different direction under Donald Trump, Mr. Biden’s immediate predecessor, who set off a bruising trade tariff war, leading to countervailing tariffs by Beijing, a process that caused economic pain on both sides. Now, the tone adopted by Mr. Blinken and his team appears to be a softer one, focussing more on economic competition with China rather than strategic confrontation.
What specific goals is Washington pursuing in Asia?
If Mr. Blinken’s initial speech at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta could be considered indicative of the Biden administration’s goals, it includes a focus on soft power to forge agreements in areas of policy such as maritime cooperation and education and Peace Corps exchanges. The White House is also clearly seeking to leverage the opportunities for cooperation and international assistance that have opened during the pandemic, including as regarding vaccine supply. In this context Mr. Blinken noted that Washington had already donated 300 million coronavirus vaccines to the Indo-Pacific region, which amounted to around 30% of its global contribution. He also vowed that the Biden administration would continue to invest billions of dollars in public health systems. Highlighting the difference in some contexts, Mr. Blinken underscored that the vaccines provided by the U.S. were given “with no strings attached,” and were highly effective. His statement in this regard is salient given reports in some quarters that millions of doses supplied by Chinese corporations to other nations have in some cases been found to be ineffective against the Delta variant.
On the positive side, the U.S. agenda for Asia is sharply focused on advocating for human rights. Mr. Biden recently conducted a ‘Democracy Summit’ that noticeably excluded China, Russia, and other nations in South Asia such as Bangladesh. While there is no mistaking the political statement behind the invitation list for the Summit, it could serve as a useful basis on which to highlight rights violations worldwide especially if the platform is further institutionalised and operationalised in the years ahead.
What are the major challenges facing U.S. strategic policy in Asia?
The major challenge for Washington is on the economic front, where it is seen as lacking a broad Asia economic strategy. Contrarily, China’s trade with every country across the Indo-Pacific region almost uniformly surpasses U.S. trade with the same.
Reports have noted that in Southeast Asia, two-way trade with China touched $685 billion in 2020, “more than double that of the region’s trade with the U.S.” ASEAN nations looking for more on the economic cooperation front from the Biden administration may come away disappointed , especially as the U.S. is not party to the two mega-trade pacts in Asia , the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Meanwhile, China has steamed ahead across the region, mostly on the wings of its Belt and Road Initiative, which focuses on construction of infrastructure including roads, railways, and ports. Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia, for example, have in recent months completed such infrastructure projects with financial support from Beijing, including high-speed railways, metro lines, dams, highways, and power plants.
A second key challenge relates to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and its fraught relationship with Taiwan. Beijing is alleged to have deployed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles in this sensitive arena, disregarding a decision in 2016 of an international tribunal that China’s claim over most of (the South China Sea) did not have any historical or legal basis. Similarly, Beijing has periodically flown warplanes over Taiwan, leading to alarm bells in the West, particularly in Washington. Unlike the rhetoric of the Trump administration, however, Mr. Biden’s White House has been clear that it would prefer not to force Asian nations to choose between the U.S. and China as partners for economic and strategic cooperation; rather, Mr. Blinken’s message appears to be that the U.S.’s economic competitiveness and technological edge ought to convince his interlocutors that it is the partner of choice.
Now it is up to Asian nations driven by variegated strategic imperatives to decide on this complex issue.