U.S. President Joe Biden took his overdue Asia tour in late May. He visited South Korea and Japan and met with South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japanese Emperor Naruhito, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly minted Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. This tour was only one of many American moves in the region in the last couple of years to beef up the presence and visibility of the U.S., including but not limited to the Quad, AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
All these were taking place under a changing Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. What has changed in the first 20 years after the end of Cold War is being changed back in the last decade, and even more so for the future. Economic cooperation used to be the driving force shaping relations between countries in the region. However, security issues are in the driver’s seat now. With the rapid development of economic globalization after the end of Cold War, there once was momentum for regional economic integration, but this is losing steam now. Major powers in the region used to cooperate and coordinate in handling economic, security, and proliferation challenges, but now strategic competition between them is coming back and haunting their interactions. Differences and disputes over ideological issues used to be put aside or downplayed in foreign policy, but now this component is being highlighted more often than not.
Under such worrisome circumstances, what role does the United States want to play in this region? The Biden administration offered an answer: The United States is here to unite, but with allies and partners only. From the very beginning of this administration, President Biden and his team tried every effort possible to unite partners so that it could compete strategically with China, or even confront it, if necessary. How to do so? According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February, and the address outlining the Biden administration’s China policy delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, the United States will shape the strategic environment in which China operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, its allies and partners.
For this purpose, the United States tried very hard to mobilize countries in the region using ideology, labeling the strategic competition between the United States and China as a struggle between democracy and autocracy.
Even as the wound of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, continues to fester, President Biden believes the United States “is still a beacon, still a magnet for all.” He convened the virtual Summit for Democracy in December to “renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.” It was more of a geopolitical ploy than a gathering for democratic states, and some believe it was the height of hypocrisy. By using ideology as a policy tool, the Biden administration shows that it only wants to unite countries in following its political agenda, to promote technological decoupling from China, to rebuild supply chains and to reshore manufacturing to the United States.
As a result, the Quad Joint Leaders’ Statement indicated that technology development in this region will be guided by “shared democratic values.” The economies of Japan and the United States are “democratic” ones, and both countries have “a unique obligation to support democratic values, norms, and principles.” The U.S.-South Korea alliance is “firmly rooted in the shared values of promoting democracy and the rules-based international order.” With maneuvering by the Biden administration, virtually anything and everything could be ideological, and that tastes very much like a Cold War cliche.
The Biden administration also encourages countries in the region to build up their military capability by citing the so-called China threat and regional security challenges. During President Biden’s Asia tour, the U.S.-ROK alliance was upgraded to the global comprehensive strategic level, and South Korea was encouraged to “embrace greater regional and global responsibilities.” Both countries committed to reinforce their combined defense posture and to expand the scope and scale of joint military exercises and training.
In the U.S.-Japan Leaders’ Joint Statement, Japan says it is determined to “examine all options necessary for national defense,” to “fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities” and to secure a substantial increase in its defense budget. Meanwhile, U.S. and India committed to “expanding cooperation in new defense domains,” including outer space and cyberspace.
These moves reminded us of the 2011 National Military Strategy of the United States, which had thee subtitle of “Redefining America’s military leadership.” When China is defined as posing a threat, and the United States has to invest domestically for now and into the foreseeable future, the Biden administration has to walk a fine line — ending the war on terror by withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, substantially shifting its strategic priority from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region, reallocating its resources in different regions and urging allies and partners to contribute more and play a bigger role in its campaign against China. This is exactly what “redefining America’s military leadership” means, and it is also very similar to the “leading from behind” strategy the Obama administration pursued 11 years ago.
The Biden administration’s “to unite” strategy is really to divide the Asia-Pacific region. What President Biden and his team said and did over the last 16 months is consistent and clear: America wants to build new coalitions by strengthening its traditional treaty alliances, regrouping allies, establishing new mechanisms and creating new platforms so that the United States can promote cooperation and coordination on political, economic, technological and security issues. In these efforts, China is either the target or is flatly excluded.
The Biden administration’s “unite to divide” strategy is only making an already dire situation worse. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region simply do not want to choose between the United States and China. Others hope the United States will do more to address their concerns, rather than the other way around.
With President Biden’s recent Asia tour and the recent remarks by Secretary Blinken, the United States is putting its “unite to divide” strategy into practice. Time will tell whether the strategy is pie in the sky or if the Biden administration can deliver for the American people, and for countries in the Asia-Pacific. It is not likely that what has failed in the past will succeed in the future.