Biden’s Indo-Pacific: The Good, the Bad – and the Unwieldy

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The flurry of diplomacy in the Asia Pacific has indicated the direction that the new US administration intends to take in its relations with China and its approach to the region. Alejandro Reyes of the Asia Global Institute warns of the pitfalls of a US Indo-Pacific strategy that is bound to be divisive.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific: The Good, the Bad – and the Unwieldy

Guardians of a free and open Indo-Pacific?: Biden (second from right), flanked by Harris and Blinken, convenes the first-ever Quad summit – virtually (Credit: Adam Schultz/The White House)

Just two months in office, President Joe Biden has already taken significant steps in outlining his approach to China in the context of an Indo-Pacific strategy.

On March 3, the White House issued an unusual “Interim National Security Strategy Guidance” designed undoubtedly to signal a departure in tone and framing from the approach taken by predecessor Donald Trump – the stress is now on shoring up “our democracy” (so badly shaken it has been in recent years, culminating in the January 6 insurrectionist attack on Capitol Hill), “leading first with diplomacy”, and working to “revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships”, all strained to varying degrees during the previous administration. The document identifies China as a “new threat” that “has rapidly become more assertive” and is “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”.

Nine days later, Biden convened virtually the first-ever summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. This was the curtain-raiser for a week of Indo-Pacific diplomacy by key members of Biden’s Cabinet – Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conferred with counterparts first in Tokyo and then in Seoul. On March 18, Blinken was to head to Anchorage, Alaska, to join White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in meetings with the top Chinese foreign-policy point men, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director and Politburo member Yang Jiechi, in the first senior-level conference between senior Chinese and US leaders since Biden’s first phone call as president with Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping on February 10.

On patrol, November 2020: The crew of the US destroyer Sterett wave to counterparts on the Indian vessel Kolkata during the first-ever naval exercises involving all Quad members (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Drace Wilson/US Navy)

On patrol, November 2020: The crew of the US destroyer Sterett wave to counterparts on the Indian vessel Kolkata during the first-ever naval exercises involving all Quad members (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Drace Wilson/US Navy)

These moves and Biden’s statements during the election campaign offer some indication of the approach that the new administration intends to take with China in the context of its Indo-Pacific strategy – some aspects clearly smart improvements over Trump, some possibly flawed and even untenable. Biden entered the White House declaring his intention, as spelled out in the “Interim National Security Strategy Guidance”, to pursue a foreign policy that benefits the middle class, to strengthen American democracy and the economy to bolster the capacity of the US to compete in the global economy particularly with chief rival China, and to reinforce alliances, partnerships and multilateral arrangements that had been damaged or dormant in recent years.

These three purposes made sense as remedies to the unpredictability and highly charged Trump years of disruptive diplomacy by Tweet, disorganization and a lack of coherence and evidence-based policy making. Connecting domestic conditions in the US to its capacity for global leadership in this hyper-complex world of new threats particularly from China is a useful principle to guide policymaking at a time of near-record-low public trust in the US government.

As it happens, negative views of China in the US increased nearly 20 percentage points since Donald Trump became president in 2017. Public opinion and the numerous sanctions that the previous administration had imposed on China have given Biden the motivation and political capital to continue the Trumpian approach to Beijing, pending a declared strategy review, including the creation of a task force at the Defense Department to evaluate the US stance towards China and an assessment of the implementation of the “phase-one” agreement meant to resolve in part the US-China trade war. The interim “guidance” is clearly the first fruit of these consultations.

The measures taken by Trump included tariffs on most imports, the inclusion of over 300 Chinese companies including a top chipmaker and drone manufacturer on the government’s Entity List (which among other things bans exports of technology to those listed), and prohibitions against American companies (including pension funds and financial firms) and individuals from owning stakes in enterprises deemed to help advance the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). (Soon after taking office, Biden delayed from January until May the implementation of the bar on investment, which had already resulted in the New York Stock Exchange delisting China’s three biggest telecoms companies.)

In addition, the outgoing administration took Beijing to task on the issues of Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. On January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency, the US State Department determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. Blinken agreed with this judgement in his Senate confirmation hearing. Also in January, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo lifted restrictions on contacts between US officials and Taiwan counterparts. This had set the stage for a visit to Taipei by Trump’s UN ambassador Kelly Craft on January 13, but the trip was called off at the last minute because Beijing threatened to have fighter jets intercept Craft’s charter flight and follow it into Taiwan airspace, according to one report from a Taiwan media outlet.

The Trump administration had imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland officials including the Chinese special administrative region's Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for “implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes”. On March 17, Biden emulated Trump, blacklisting an additional 24 officials after China's legislature approved Hong Kong electoral reforms days earlier. In upping the penalty on Hong Kong on the eve of the US-China talks in Alaska, the new US administration must be reckoning that, with his kitchen-sink decoupling moves and repeated diplomatic salvos against Beijing, Trump had bequeathed to them substantial leverage that could prove handy as they take on China. Why not pile on the punishment?

But while this perceived embarrassment of bargaining chips might give impetus for a tough tack with Beijing, Biden will need to square his evolving China strategy with the promise of rationality as an antidote to Trump's volatility, if he is to match his pledge to conduct trade and investment policy for the middle class. Biden decried the Trump tariffs (arguing that American consumers were paying the costs, not China) in his election campaign, yet his administration is resisting pressure (including legal action) from American businesses to lift them, preferring instead to retain whatever advantage they may give as it sets a new working relationship with Beijing.

In this case, Biden is calculating that continuing bad Trump policy may have its benefits. But therein lies the conundrum for the new president – does he carry on wielding Trumpist tools, or does he take the more pragmatic, rational path that he promised, which will involve both competition and collaboration with China?

For now, the strategy is muddled. Biden has emphasized the need for the US to work with allies and partners in forging a common or coordinated approach to Beijing. Repairing tattered relationships including with some of Washington’s closest friends will benefit the US position and will also strengthen the cause of multilateralism. During the Trump presidency, allies and partners were just as vexed by how to deal with the Americans as they were with how to engage a "wolf-warrior" China, with many efforts to get around, bypass or simply ignore the temperamental Trump.

The conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was perhaps the most prominent example of an end run around the US. But there were other such anxious consultations and improvised initiatives including efforts to get around the hobbling of the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement mechanism due to the US blocking of appointments to the appeals panel.

The US, however, will have difficulty rebuilding the broken trust and allaying fears in allied and partner capitals that the next president could be Trump himself or a Trumpist who would revert to scorched-earth diplomacy. Biden may want to be bolder in making amends. Take the relationship with Canada. In his call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the president discussed the cases of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor whom China arrested in apparent retaliation for the detention in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese technology group Huawei and daughter of one of Huawei’s founders. Canada had acted on a request from the US Department of Justice for Meng to be extradited to face wire and bank fraud charges. When US Vice President Kamala Harris later had her own phone conversation with Trudeau, she brought up the issue without prompting.

With Trudeau ruling out negotiating with China over Meng and the “Two Michaels", who are both accused of espionage, the pathway to a solution goes through Washington. Biden could spend some of his political capital as a gesture of goodwill to its “collaterally damaged” ally and help Ottawa break its two-year impasse with Beijing. One possibility: a plea bargain or some other arrangement with Meng, or perhaps an adjustment of the charges against her and Huawei. Spavor is set to go on trial on March 19, while Kovrig will be in court on March 22. This development should focus American minds and possibly prompt the US to act.

While casting the relationship with China as one of “extreme competition”, Biden professes to want a cooperative working relationship with Beijing on pressing global and regional issues that would require US-China collaboration to address such as the pandemic and public health, climate change, security on the Korean Peninsula, the updating of the multilateral trade system, and countering nuclear proliferation and violent extremism.

Climate czars confer: Xie of China and Kerry of the US at the Paris climate conference in 2015 (Credit: US Department of State)

Climate czars confer: Xie of China and Kerry of the US at the Paris climate conference in 2015 (Credit: US Department of State)

There is an encouraging sign that such a bifurcated approach is in the offing. The US and China have agreed to co-chair a G20 study group on climate-related financial risks, Both countries made separate announcements about their joint effort, but reports are that Biden’s climate czar John Kerry and Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, who were both involved in the strenuous negotiations leading to the conclusion of Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, have been communicating regularly since even before Biden’s election victory in November last year.

But Biden’s early decision to take a page from Trump's Indo-Pacific playbook and double down on a Quad revival (it started out as an informal cooperative humanitarian effort in response to the 2004 tsunami disaster) is puzzling. Trump and Pompeo had promoted the Quad as a building block for a potential security architecture for the region. In a March 14 joint opinion editorial in the Washington Post, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and Japanese leader Suga Yoshihide declared that “in this new age of interconnection and opportunity throughout the Indo-Pacific, we are again summoned to act together in support of a region in need.”

The presumption is that countries in the region are clamoring for a white knight in this moment of new threats. The joint statement issued after the virtual summit on March 12 makes even plainer the rationale for the Quad construct – to counter China: “Together, we commit to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.  We support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity.”

The Quad is the flagship of the “Indo-Pacific” concepts that have become a new feature of international relations in what has traditionally been called the “Asia Pacific”. Japan and the US have articulated similar versions of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific that stress freedom of navigation, free trade, the rule of law, the pursuit of economic prosperity, and the commitment to peace and stability. Tokyo underscores “connectivity” – the “Indo-Pacific” as a chain linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans and bringing together Oceania, ASEAN, South Asia and Africa. The US, meanwhile, is boosting the Quad as a regional security framework.

For its part, India has offered a variant that stresses the need for the “Indo-Pacific” to be “inclusive”, and ASEAN has put forward an Indonesia-driven “outlook” that falls short of embracing the Indo-Pacific as a guiding framework for the rules-based international order in the region. Indeed, the label “outlook” seems to imply the point of view of a group at the center observing activities that happen to be going on outside. Europeans countries, notably Germany and the Netherlands, have come out with their own Indo-Pacific strategies.

What unites these various Indo-Pacific concepts? There are four key factors at play:

  • the fraying of the post-World War II rules-based international order and the weakening of dominant American leadership (due to reticence to remain in the lead, real or perceived decline in US power and influence, or the rise of other major powers),
  • the rise of China and China’s promotion of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a global framework for its international trade and economic relations,
  • the emergence of India as a key power in the region, and
  • the challenging domestic economic prospects (worsened by the pandemic) that are driving key countries to seek new sources of growth and to ensure regional strategic and human (energy, food) security.
In the Asia Pacific, China looms large – International Cultures Day, Hastings, New Zealand (Credit: saruntorn chotchitima /

In the Asia Pacific, China looms large – International Cultures Day, Hastings, New Zealand (Credit: saruntorn chotchitima /

Proponents of Indo-Pacific concepts argue that they are not meant to replace existing “Asia-Pacific” frameworks but are another layer of governance that circumstances demand. Underpinning the momentum behind the adoption of the Indo-Pacific as a framework is the perceived common objective of countering China – often described as the need for “the like-minded” to work together. The UK’s invitations to South Korea, Australia and India to participate in this year’s G7 Summit has been cast as an attempt to create a “Democracy 10” or D10 group of democracies. The proposal to expand the Five Eyes intelligence grouping to include Japan is based on a similar motive.

There has even been talk of bringing Taiwan into the CPTPP, which would give credence to the perception that the original TPP was meant to circumscribe China (or as Barack Obama put it, to prevent China from writing the rules). ASEAN member states, China and four other dialogue partners in November 2020 concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade arrangement seen as something of a rival to the CPTPP, though the two blocs are of clearly differing quality (the latter requiring higher-standard commitments on a broader range of issues).

The central motivation behind Indo-Pacific concepts is the emergence of China as a major power in the region as a global challenger to US dominance. This is particularly evident in Washington’s promotion of the Quad as a viable security architecture for the region. The net effect of the adoption of Indo-Pacific as a new layer of the regional rules-based order is:

  • to undermine the essential principle of ASEAN centrality – ASEAN’s role as the fulcrum of the balance of power in the region,
  • to thrust India into a key geostrategic role in the Asia-Pacific region for which New Delhi is neither prepared nor authentically willing to fill, and
  • to promote the decoupling of the “like-minded” from China (consider the supply-chain and infrastructure initiatives).

With no established and validated mechanisms and frameworks, the Indo-Pacific represents an extraneous layer of governance predicated mainly on the need to counter China, the assumption being that existing Asia-Pacific frameworks include China and are therefore arguably compromised or doomed to be hobbled or impeded by US-China friction.

But if the region is to make progress in the very areas where Indo-Pacific promoters see opportunity – climate change, cyber security, public health, infrastructure, among others (consider the Quad summit joint statement) – then a framework that is inclusive of everyone but China would be counterproductive, merely decoupling by another name. It would undermine global multilateralism and any attempt to bolster it in the aftermath of the turbulent Trump years.

More critical is the challenge to ASEAN centrality posed by the unwieldy Indo-Pacific construct and its promotion as a framework for a rules-based international order in the region. By pushing the Quad, even with the leaders’ declaring their commitment to “work with a range of partners” and their reaffirmation of “our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality”, the US is signaling that it wants to handle the ball. The proposal of a Quad-Plus arrangement that would include New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam, the latter a member of ASEAN, does little to diminish that perception.

This time of “new threats” is not a moment for divisive constructs, though the growing “Indo-Pacific” bandwagon indicates that the concept is here to stay. Rather, it is a time for shoring up relationships and reassuring partners in the Asia Pacific. That goes for both Washington and Beijing. “Asia-Pacific countries do not wish to be forced to choose between the United States and China,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in a Foreign Affairs essay in 2020. “They want to cultivate good relations with both.” He cautioned that if the US attempted to contain China and Beijing tried to create an exclusive sphere of influence in the region, the two powers “will begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy”. That is an Asian voice which the great powers engaged in the global strategic competition would do well to heed.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Alejandro Reyes

Alejandro Reyes

Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong

Alejandro Reyes is director of knowledge dissemination and adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute of The University of Hong Kong. He is a fellow of the Canadian International Council for 2020-22. From 2017 to 2019, he served as senior policy adviser to the assistant deputy minister (Asia Pacific) and co-convenor of the Asia Pacific Policy Hub at Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian foreign ministry. Early in his professional career, he was a journalist with Asiaweek magazine, where his last position was senior correspondent for regional affairs.

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