Biden Administration Seeks to Repair Trump's Wreckage in Asia
Intensive diplomatic efforts pay off, but task is difficult
The visits to Washington DC over recent weeks by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to discuss enhanced security measures are evidence that US President Joe Biden, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have been steadily rebuilding the US presence in Asia that had been virtually destroyed by former President Donald Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Admittedly, that has created tensions and fears of a major war. The diplomatic and military progress of the US and its allies, particularly a newly energized Japan, are challenging the PLA Navy’s dominance of the so-called first island chain that begins at Japan’s Kuril Islands, runs through the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu islands and Taiwan, down through the northwestern portion of the Philippines, where Marcos has sought to reverse former President Rodrigo Duterte’s paralysis over Chinese intrusions into Philippine territory.
Trump, as president, did almost incalculable damage to American interests in Asia, not only by voiding the 16-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement fashioned painstakingly by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama but by voiding other treaties as well. He alienated both South Korea and Japan by attempting to force the two to raise their defense budgets markedly and threating to pull out forces while also cozying up to the murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, at one point stating “We fell in love.” Pompeo's calls for regime change in China were regarded in Asian capitals as needless posturing and bellicosity. The sum and substance of the Trump presidency in Asia was to cast the impression that the United States, which for decades has served as the region’s policeman and peacekeeper, could not be trusted.
Biden's diplomatic moves have not been without mistakes. The US and EU need to do much more to turn around public perception, which has shifted away in the region from the US towards China. At the government level, countries are increasingly afraid to disagree with Beijing, given their economic dependence on China. The Biden team has made virtually no effort to rebuild the trade policies that had been fashioned for decades by successive presidents until Trump voided the TPP. Nor has Biden bothered to rescind the tariffs that Trump put in place in his trade war against China but which have resulted in more damage to US industry and agriculture than to China. US insistence on leaning on other countries to block imports of Huawei white goods, arguably the world’s most prevalent, and ban the use of TikTok, the enormously popular video hosting service, seem to many to be unnecessary and overbearing although the US insists they can be used for espionage purposes.
There are real questions over the administration’s policy in blocking technology transfers to China even when there appears no military significance to items that have been blocked. There is also a growing attitude in the United States as a whole that recalls the “yellow peril” prejudice that characterized the country in the first decades of the 20th century, And the administration hasn't done enough to stop it.
Nonetheless, the administration has had considerable involuntary help in rebuilding relations across Asia from Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has scored own goals by his belligerence in actions in the South China Sea against the maritime interests of virtually all the littoral nations, but particularly the Philippines and Vietnam by demanding that they observe the so-called nine-dash line which extends China's hegemony to virtually their doorsteps and denies them access to their own underwater resources.
The brutal crackdown on Hong Kong, with the arrests of scores of opposition lawmakers, and rocket rattling over Taiwan have unsettled governments throughout the region. Duterte, after first seeking to cement relations with Beijing, was forced to turn back toward the United States by China's pugnaciousness not only in the South China Sea but the Philippines’ east sea as well. Indonesia has had to use Air Force jets to force Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels out of its Natuna and once discovered underwater probes surveying its area.
But the administration started out acting in adult fashion globally by immediately rejoining the Paris Agreement seeking to mitigate climate change and the World Health Organization (WHO), both of which Trump quit, signaling a renewed commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism. High-level officials including Blinken, Austin, and vice president Kamala Harris all have assiduously courted countries in the region. US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns has made many unannounced trips to the region.
The administration began its diplomatic initiatives almost at the start, with a visit by Defense Secretary Austin to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in July of 2021 to shore up relations with countries most supportive of US interests in the region. That has been followed by several other trips by Austin in which he promised to provide additional US military hardware. Taiwan has been the recipient of generous arms sold not only by the US but its allies to stave off any China threat. In February 2022 the administration named Vietnam, its one-time implacable foe, a leading regional partner in its Indo-Pacific Strategy covering a vast geographic area including many nations and touching on a wide range of issues.
Overall, with rather too much confrontation and discord, the Biden administration has prioritized engagement and cooperation with Asian countries – except for China, of course – particularly through multilateral initiatives, in order to rebuild and advance shared interests in the region. It initiated the AUKUS defense treaty between the UK, the US, and Australia that Canada now is considering joining. It has revitalized the moribund Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States which is somewhat fancifully regarded as a counter to China militarily and diplomatically in the Indo-Pacific region, although in no way is this a NATO style alliance, particularly given the ambivalence of India and the absence of military interoperability.
In June 2022, the US, backed by the G7 Nations, launched a potential “Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment” as an antidote to China’s massive US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative, which must be deemed a success despite problems of graft, debt traps, and white elephant projects. The western effort, although it seems too little and too late, is nonetheless a belated recognition that the west must involve itself in helping developing nations build their own foundations for economic success in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
So together with a newly military-minded Japan, Washington is succeeding in drawing its own cordon across the region. The access to four additional military sites in addition to the previous five for the US forces in the Philippines shores up Taiwan’s defense, an island linchpin at the end of the Ryukyu Arc, the chain of islands extending southwest from the Japanese island of Kyushu, drawing an arc to hem in the PLA Navy from adventures in the western Pacific. Washington’s dalliance with Taiwan can be regarded as unwarranted interference in the sovereign affairs of the Chinese nation. Whether it is or isn't, a look at the map shows how China is being pinned in.
All of this can be fraught with danger, given Beijing’s insistence on its “nine-dash line” in defiance of international law, claiming most of the South China Sea, building out once-uninhabited islets for military installations including landing strips. According to Britain’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, China now has 777 assets, mainly seafaring vessels, in the South China Sea. The US lack of initiative on trade and investment is particularly distressing if the US wants to match China either in the world or in Asia. But the biggest danger is that Donald Trump will return to office in the US’s 2024 general election.
Great piece putting current developments into context. I'd say one of the key reasons for the Biden Administration's reluctance to negotiate more free trade deals in Asia is domestic politics: the fear that if American workers beleive that such deals will impact them negatively, it will end up hurt the Democrats at the ballot box.