The past year was a transition, with President Biden proclaiming “America is back,” signaling a change in the agenda and style of US foreign policy. Yet the Biden administration’s approach in the Indo-Pacific has been one of both continuity and change. “Strategic competition” remains the focus of US–China relations, with tensions increasing and few signs of improvement. Yet, it is imperative that this relationship be managed carefully in the years ahead to keep competition from turning into military conflict.
When the party in power changes in Washington, policy change is expected. Soon after entering the White House, president Joseph Biden proclaimed that “America is back” and that he would return to a foreign policy that works closely with allies and partners on crucial issues such as climate change, global economic growth, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and renewing US leadership abroad. Contrasting his administration’s approach with former president Trump’s “America First,” Biden maintained there would be a change in how Washington conducted business as well as its list of priorities. Biden has worked more closely with US allies in its Asia policy, particularly Australia, Japan, and South Korea, and has sought to improve ties with India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Yet during Biden’s first year in office, his administration’s Asia policy was much more of a mix of continuity and change with regard to previous administrations. In 2020, the US made an explicit shift to confronting China on several issues in what has now been labeled “strategic competition” (Roehrig 2021), and the Biden administration has continued that direction. US–China relations continue to worsen, and the ongoing trade war shows few signs of abating. In addition, concerns remain regarding treatment of the Uighurs, repression in Hong Kong, and China’s South China Sea claims. Most serious has been the increasing tensions between China and Taiwan and calls for Washington to provide an unambiguous commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
Biden has also taken up the project begun during the Trump years for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad) with Australia, India, and Japan, creating further momentum for this organization. Another security organization surfaced in September between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US with the acronym AUKUS, adding another component of “strategic competition” between China and the US.
Concerning North Korea, the Biden administration conducted an extensive review of US–North Korea policy, remaining committed to diplomacy while maintaining sanctions. It is not clear that much has changed from previous administrations. Finally, many decried the Trump administration’s departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a huge mistake that removed the US from an important multilateral trade deal. If the central goal of US strategy in the region is to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and the rules-based international order, withdrawing from the TPP meant Washington was further ceding economic power and influence to China to make the rules. Yet, during the first year in office, the Biden administration showed little interest in returning to the region’s free trade architecture or moving beyond a largely security-focused strategy to one that also includes a more robust economic component.
The first year of the Biden administration has been a difficult one, with a plethora of problems both at home and abroad. Managing these priorities while turning US attention to the Indo-Pacific has been a challenge. The remainder of this essay will examine the elements of continuity and change in US policy in Asia, including US–China relations, improved ties with US allies, North Korea policy, renewed engagement with Southeast Asia, the Quad, US–India relations, and a free trade agreement.
US–China Relations: Descending Further
The most significant area of continuity between the Biden and Trump administrations has been the pursuit of a tough line on US–China relations. Some analysts had wondered whether Biden would take a step back, but early on he signaled there would be no change from Trump administration policies. Moreover, Biden extended sanctions on Chinese medical goods, added five Chinese tech companies to a government blacklist for national security reasons, and sanctioned 24 officials over ongoing suppression of democracy protests in Hong Kong early in his administration.
US–China tensions were on public display in March when secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan met Yang Jiechi, director of the Party’s foreign affairs commission, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. The two sides traded barbs, with Blinken noting “deep concern” for Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, increasing pressure on Taiwan and US allies, and cyber attacks on the US. Sullivan characterized these actions as an “assault on basic values.” Wang Yi pushed back on American “condescension,” noting that “China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side.…There is no way to strangle China” (Lee and Thiessen 2021). After the public acrimony, the officials held two closed-door sessions but did not issue a joint statement of the proceedings. Instead, the two governments released separate statements that noted fundamental disagreements but also acknowledged the possibility of cooperation on a few shared concerns, such as climate change and the challenges posed by North Korea, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.
After the hostility in Alaska, there were some positive signs and attempts at dialogue. In April, climate change envoy John Kerry met his counterpart in Shanghai, and the following month US trade representative Katherine Tai held a telephone call with Chinese vice premier Liu He. Janet Yellen, treasury secretary, followed with several meetings with Chinese officials, but there was little progress on trade issues. Shortly after one of these meetings, Biden issued an executive order expanding a Trump directive that banned US investment in over 50 Chinese firms with ties to surveillance technology or the defense sector. Other meetings to address trade issues by Tai, Yellen, and later commerce secretary Gina Raimondo followed, but so did the sanctions, including measures that targeted Chinese human rights abuses toward the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
A tragic episode that was part of US–China tensions finally came to an end in September 2021. In 2018, Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on a US warrant for misleading HSBC Bank officials over Huawei’s ties with an Iranian subsidiary that might have violated economic sanctions on Iran. Within hours of her arrest, two Canadians in China—Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was working for the think tank International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, the director of an NGO that facilitated cultural, business, and sports exchanges with North Korea—were detained and charged with espionage. Chinese authorities maintained their arrest was not connected to Meng’s detention, but there was no doubt this was retaliation. Eventually, Meng pleaded not guilty to fraud charges but did concede that she mislead HSBC regarding Huawei’s relationship with the Iranian firm. Meng spent close to three years under house arrest in Vancouver avoiding extradition to the US. During that time, Spavor was tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison while Kovrig remained in custody without a trial.
On September 24, 2021, the US Justice Department announced an agreement to defer Meng’s prosecution until 2022, with the charges likely to be dropped altogether. With the deal, Meng was allowed to return to China, and shortly after, China released Korvig and Spavor for health reasons. Beijing again asserted that there was no connection between their release and Meng’s return, but it was clear to all that the two men had become political pawns.
The most serious potential flashpoint in US–China relations is the fate of Taiwan. Cross-Strait relations, already in a difficult place, deteriorated further as the year progressed. Xi has been emphatic regarding the ultimate goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland and has ratcheted up pressure by drastically increasing the number of incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has not backed down, declaring that while Taiwan will not be provocative, it will defend its sovereignty.
Though the formal US policy of “strategic ambiguity” remains, the US position has been evolving. Since 1979, the US has acknowledged China’s “one China” position but insisted that the reunification be done peacefully. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US also committed to selling Taiwan defensive weapons. However, Washington has withheld a formal security guarantee for fear Taiwan might declare independence believing the US would defend it from certain Chinese military retaliation. Consequently, US assurances to Taiwan have been ambiguous to prevent China and Taiwan from disrupting the status quo.
During the Trump years, US policy had already begun to shift in Taiwan’s direction, with USD 18 billion in arms sales in four years, more than the Obama administration sold in eight years. Trump also relaxed restrictions on high-level officials visiting Taiwan, and Congress joined the effort with several laws that moved the US closer to Taiwan. Biden appears to be continuing this trend, though official US policy remains unchanged. Biden was the first US president since the US established formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979 to invite representatives of Taiwan to his inauguration. In April, the US ambassador to Palau, John Hennesey-Niland, traveled with a Palau delegation to Taiwan, the first time a sitting US ambassador made this journey. In October, press reports, later confirmed by President Tsai, indicated that US troops were in Taiwan helping train its military. Most interesting, in an August ABC News interview and again in October during a CNN Town Hall meeting, Biden was asked whether the US would defend Taiwan, and he replied with an unequivocal “yes.” After both events, US officials “walked back” the president’s comments and affirmed that US policy had not changed. Though “strategic ambiguity” remains in place, the debate continues as to whether or not the US should provide an explicit security guarantee.
In his address to the United Nations in September, Biden stressed that while the US will vigorously compete with China, he does not want relations to become another Cold War or spill over into conflict. In November at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland), China and the US announced an agreement to increase their cooperation in cutting greenhouse gases. A few days later, Biden and Xi met for over three hours in a virtual summit. The two leaders had spoken over the telephone on two previous occasions in 2021, and the tone of this meeting was far more cordial than the exchanges between US and Chinese officials in Alaska. Biden and Xi raised strong objections to each other’s actions but pledged to improve cooperation, though there was no agreement on concrete measures between the two governments. They had much to talk about, and hopefully this meeting can be the start to ratcheting down a tense relationship.
Restoring the Importance of Allies: Japan and South Korea
From the outset, Biden made it clear that US relations with allies were going to be a priority. During the Trump administration, all US strategy documents maintained the importance of working with allies, and the Pentagon and State Department continued this crucial work. However, the White House often took a transactional approach that contradicted the worth of these relationships with far less appreciation for their strategic value.
Early signs from the Biden administration were positive. Some of the first calls Biden made to foreign leaders were to Japanese prime minister Suga Yoshihide and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, signaling renewed appreciation of these alliances in Asia policy. In March, Secretary Blinken and secretary of defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Tokyo and Seoul for 2+2 meetings that reaffirmed these relationships. Soon after, the administration released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which provided an early look at its security strategy and declared: “We can do none of this work alone. For that reason, we will reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships around the world” (Biden 2021, 10). In April, Prime Minister Suga was the first foreign leader to visit the Biden White House, followed the next month by a summit with President Moon.
Shortly after his inauguration, Biden moved to end a continuing sore point in US–South Korea relations by concluding the stalled talks over alliance burden-sharing. While this issue has often been a contentious one, the Trump administration raised the ire to new levels, with reports indicating an opening US demand of USD 5 billion, more than five times the previous year’s payment. Eventually, the US position came down to USD 1.3 billion, and South Korea offered USD 1.04 billion—a 13% increase from the last deal—but the talks stalled. After Biden’s inauguration, US and ROK officials moved quickly to sign a new four-year deal that committed South Korea to spending USD 1.05 billion the first year, with provisions for increases in subsequent years based on ROK defense spending.
Japan had been watching these events very closely, as its own burden-sharing agreement was set to expire in March 2021. Though the Trump administration had not started formal negotiations, there were rumblings that the opening ask would be USD 8 billion, a huge increase from the previous year’s USD 1.9 billion. With the agreement due to expire less than two months after Biden’s inauguration, Washington and Tokyo agreed to extend the current arrangement for another year to allow a less hurried look at the cost-sharing arrangements.
The North Korea Policy Review
After a flurry of high-profile summit meetings between North and South Korea and the US in 2018 and 2019, talks to denuclearize North Korea stalled. On taking office, Biden announced that he would undertake a comprehensive review of North Korea policy. As the review was underway, Biden gave a foreign policy address to Congress where he cited North Korea as a severe security threat, and said that Pyongyang would be dealt with through “diplomacy and stern deterrence.” Soon after, a State Department spokesperson offered a blistering critique of North Korea and its human rights record, calling it “one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world” (US Mission and Consulate in the Republic of Korea 2021). To all of this, North Korea responded with the expected invective. Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister and trusted confidante, declared Biden was making a huge mistake that demonstrated Washington’s continued hostile policy.
On April 30, 2021, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced that the policy review was complete and offered a few indications of the results during a press briefing. Psaki noted that the goal remained the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Distancing Biden from previous administrations, she noted that the focus would be neither some type of grand bargain, as Trump had hoped for at Hanoi in 2019, nor the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration. Instead, Biden would pursue a calibrated and practical approach where the US was open to diplomacy in service of the goal of denuclearization, but in the meantime, economic sanctions would remain in place.
In May, Biden appointed Sung Kim US special representative for North Korea, a position he held during the Obama administration. Ambassador Kim declared that the US was willing to meet North Korea “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” But North Korea was not moved, and foreign minister Ri Son-gwon replied that his government was not even interested in “meaningless dialogue” with Washington.
For much of the year, North Korea was relatively quiet, but in fall, ominous signs emerged of considerable progress in its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency published a report confirming renewed activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon facility to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium to grow its nuclear stockpile. In September, North Korea tested several missiles, including a long-range cruise missile possibly capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, a rail-mobile short-range ballistic missile with solid fuel propellant, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a hypersonic missile. Despite these actions, North Korea did not appear to be a major priority of the Biden administration, and since Psaki’s remarks in April, little further information has been revealed on the administration’s policy. Indeed, the Biden administration has been focused on what it now calls “strategic competition” with China and Russia, growing concern over Chinese pressure on Taiwan, and a host of domestic priorities. Seoul tried to convince Washington to join in offering a peace declaration to the North, but the US did not believe it was the right time to make such an offer.
Southeast Asia: Washington Needs More Than Words
The importance of Southeast Asia among US priorities has long been suspect, and past administrations have often been criticized for giving scant attention to the region. Early signals from the Biden administration showed a desire to change this state of affairs. Along with the emphasis on revitalizing alliances, Biden indicated a desire to work more closely with Singapore, Vietnam, and other ASEAN states. In July, Defense Secretary Austin was the first high-level official to travel to the region, visiting Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in a show of US support for Southeast Asia.
To further shore up the US position, a few weeks later, vice president Kamala Harris went to Singapore and Vietnam. Though the trip had been planned well in advance, it coincided with the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and all of the surrounding questions the departure raised for US credibility. During her trip, Harris called out China for its unlawful claims in the South China Sea and its subversion of the international rules-based order, along with the intimidation tactics Beijing uses to press those claims. While in Singapore, Harris also announced a series of agreements on several issues, including dealing with the pandemic, cyber security, climate change, and semiconductor supply chains. Harris also made a point of stressing that the US goal was not to make states choose between Washington and Beijing but rather to present an alternative of US partnership with the region.
These have been important early steps, but for many it is a familiar story, where the actions that need to follow these words are often not forthcoming. Commenting on Harris’s trip, Curtis S. Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, lamented that it was “an important symbolic trip, but the reality is that what’s more important than these trips is what happens in between.…Our rhetoric is: ‘We are here for a long time. We are steadfast in our engagement.’ The reality is, as Asia well knows from Vietnam to Afghanistan, that rhetoric and reality often do not match” (quoted in Kanno-Youngs 2021).
Biden met this challenge with attendance at the virtual meeting of the East Asia Summit and ASEAN in October. At the East Asia Summit, which was attended by ASEAN, China, and other key regional players, Biden called out China’s coercive actions toward Taiwan, declaring the US commitment to be “rock solid.” He also reiterated US support for the rules-based order and denounced the violence in Myanmar while calling for a return to democracy. Perhaps most important, at the ASEAN meeting, Biden announced a USD 100 million initiative for ASEAN to fund programs dealing with health, climate change, education, and economic recovery from COVID-19. Biden’s attendance at these meetings was an important gesture, but the follow-through will be crucial.
The Quad and Aukus
The Asian security architecture had two significant developments in 2021: the increased momentum of the Quad, and the new AUKUS trilateral security arrangement announced in September. The concepts of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a “rules-based international order” are central motivations for both organizations. But the primary driver is concern for the growth of Chinese economic and military power, though it is seldom mentioned. Thus, while these organizations are often framed as states with common values and interests seeking to work together, it is near impossible to disguise the concern regarding China in these initiatives.
The Quad was first conceived in 2004 as an effort for emergency tsunami relief in Indonesia. In 2007, another attempt was made to revive the organization, this time leaning more in the direction of security cooperation, but India was reluctant and Australia eventually opted out. With increasing Sino–US tensions, the Trump administration joined the move to revive the Quad. The Biden administration placed even greater emphasis on the Quad by convening the first summit meeting, with a virtual gathering on March 12 followed by an in-person summit in Washington on September 24. The joint statement that followed the September meeting affirmed their commitment to a “free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law” and pledged to deepen cooperation on COVID-19 vaccinations, cyber security, climate change, infrastructure standards, and Indo-Pacific security. China was not mentioned in the document, but several other issues, such as concern for the East and South China Seas, were directed at Beijing.
The future of the Quad is uncertain. Some have suggested the group could expand and evolve into an Asian NATO. Others have countered that states cooperating on common problems is one thing, but a formal security alliance will be a bridge too far. The elevation of the Quad to leader-level meetings is a sign that this grouping may have more staying power than initially expected and may become a consequential organization, though not a formal alliance. Indeed, after initially dismissing the Quad, China has begun to pay much more attention to its actions. Yet, many questions remain as to what members are willing to do, who might join a “Quad-plus” in the future, and whether the group remains a collection of liked-minded states with common security challenges or becomes an explicit, anti-China balancing coalition.
On September 15, AUKUS came into being, adding the newest group to the Asian security architecture. The centerpiece of the pact was US and UK assistance to help Australia obtain a nuclear-powered submarine. The deal also provided for increased cooperation on cyber security, artificial intelligence, and quantum technology. Though China was not mentioned specifically in the AUKUS announcement, the measure was clearly intended to address Chinese military power. The agreement was accompanied by Australia’s cancellation of a deal Canberra had with France for 12 diesel submarines, provoking outrage in Paris.
Proponents lauded AUKUS as an important step to counter Chinese military strength and political influence that helps demonstrate US commitment to the region, draws the United Kingdom more closely into Asia-Pacific affairs, and signals that Australia, after the recent occurrences of Chinese coercion, is shifting from a hedging strategy to one that is decidedly with the US.
Critics raised strong objections that the deal eroded efforts to stop the spread of nuclear technology and materials. Though the submarine deal entailed only nuclear propulsion and Australia has affirmed its commitment to not seek nuclear weapons, the technology and highly enriched uranium for these submarines is spreading to one more user. The US has only shared this technology one other time—with the UK in 1958—and doing so again, critics maintain, will further undercut the norms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Regardless of one’s position on the substance, most agree that the rollout of the deal was poorly handled and unnecessarily offended France, a crucial US ally and a country that also has important interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the administration’s commitment to the importance of allies, Paris received little advance notice and was irate over the deal. The French foreign minister described it as a “knife in the back.” After AUKUS was announced, Washington moved quickly to repair the damage, but it may take some time to bring US–French relations back to normal.
During the Trump years, US–India relations ran hot and cold. Modi and Trump had a good personal relationship, and in 2020 New Delhi began to show increased interest in closer security ties with the US. The turning point occurred in the summer of 2020 as the Indian–Chinese clash in Ladakh intensified and nudged India closer to the US, including greater interest in the Quad. Thus began what some have characterized as India’s recalibration of its approach to the Indo-Pacific with greater convergence of Indo–US interests (Pant and Saha 2020). However, frictions remained over trade, immigration, and H1-B visas, as well as Indian purchases of Russian military hardware, especially the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Biden has a long history of close ties working with India, and has continued to build on that relationship. Vice President Harris, whose mother’s side of the family originates from India, has helped strengthen those ties. US–India cooperation continues to grow in part through the increased momentum of Quad cooperation. As the Quad continues to evolve, security and economic cooperation are likely to expand as well.
Yet challenges remain. India was dismayed by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sudden collapse of the Afghan government. With the Taliban back in power, fears of greater regional instability and increased terrorism have grown, since Pakistan has a freer hand to support terrorist actions against India. The silver lining is that the US withdrawal means Washington no longer needs Pakistan’s assistance for military operations in Afghanistan, allowing the US to distance itself from Islamabad, something India welcomes.
Biden has also stressed that human rights and the promotion of democratic values are a point of emphasis in his administration. Indian democracy has been backsliding, and there have been concerns over political violence and the curtailment of civil liberties. So far, Biden has chosen not to raise this issue with the Modi government. Given the importance of India in the Quad and to US Indo-Pacific strategy, those concerns are likely to remain muted.
Finally, the economic issues that complicated US–India relations during the Trump years have not gone away. The US trade deficit with India is likely to be more than USD 25 billion for 2021, and limited US access to Indian markets remains a concern. Though there has been hope for some type of bilateral trade deal, it has not come to pass.
Strong bipartisan support exists in Washington for close ties with India. Yet, despite the hopes of some for even more formal cooperation between Washington and New Delhi, there are important reasons to temper this optimism. Though China’s actions have clearly pushed India closer to the US, there are limits to how far India is willing to go in countering China. Moreover, India still values its “strategic autonomy,” with the most likely result being a US–India relationship that slowly evolves but remains short of anything resembling an alliance.
What About Economics?
Economics has played a major role in US efforts to compete with China. One area that has been less prominent is US involvement in regional trade and investment. In 2016, the US signed the TPP, a 12-member free trade agreement that included key regional players such as Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam, among others. It was the world’s largest free trade agreement, covering close to 40% of the global economy.
The TPP became the economic pillar of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” in a deal to lower trade barriers along with stipulations on environmental protection, anti-corruption measures, and some protection for intellectual property. The agreement also had important political implications to bring like-minded states together to establish rules for the global economy and build closer political ties while seeking to counter Chinese economic power and influence. Finally, the TPP was an important signal of US engagement in the region.
Early on, the agreement had critics in the US, particularly those who believed the deal would hurt workers by taking away American jobs and reducing wages, while providing insufficient protection for the environment and intellectual property. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump lambasted the TPP and pledged to withdraw the US from the agreement. Hillary Clinton, who had been a supporter of the TPP while secretary of state, also turned against the deal, largely as a campaign move. A few days after his inauguration, Trump formally pulled the US out of the TPP.
In the wake of the US withdrawal, Japan took the lead to complete the deal, and in March 2018, the 11 remaining members of the original group signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The follow-on deal removed some of the provisions important to the US, including items on environmental protection and labor. Biden has indicated that he does not favor joining the CPTPP as it stands.
While this successor to the TPP has its flaws, the US also pays a price for remaining on the sidelines, reinforcing the perception in the region that the US is continuing down a path of disengagement and declining influence. The trade pact was much more than an economic deal and has important implications for setting the broader economic and political order in the region. The United Kingdom, China, and Taiwan have already applied for membership in the CPTPP. The year has passed without clear signs that the administration is seeking to build an economic pillar for its Asia strategy, and it will be crucial to do so in the years ahead. For the US to regain its economic relevance in the region, it must return to being an important player in the regional economy by leading on the free trade and investment strategies that promote sustained development.
Though Biden has brought important changes to US policy in Asia, some of the most daunting problems the administration faces, namely China and North Korea, have been addressed with policies that have largely been a continuation from previous years. Looking forward, Biden will face the difficult balancing act of confronting China when necessary but also crafting a relationship with Beijing that seeks cooperation where possible. Both Washington and Beijing must find a path that carefully manages their increasingly acrimonious relationship and does not lead to military conflict.
Published online: February 9, 2022