Last month, the Biden administration finally concentrated on realizing its Asian ambitions. Though President Biden came to office determined to make Asia his highest foreign-policy priority, events at home, in Afghanistan, and in Europe understandably dominated the initial White House agenda. But last month, the administration hosted an ASEAN summit in Washington, arranged a short but consequential presidential trip to the region, and delivered a long-anticipated speech focused on China-U.S. relations. As a result of these developments, we now better understand the Biden administration’s Asian strategy.
Though Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speech came at the end of May, the text, originally scheduled to occur before Biden’s first trip as president to Asia, helps place the month’s events in context. Biden’s presentation was notable not for its new initiatives, which were few, but for its repackaging and justifying of the administration’s policies towards Beijing. China, he observed, was “the only country with both the intent” and the capacities required to comprehensively challenge the extant “system of laws, agreements, principles, and institutions” that underpin the prevailing international order favored by the United States. Therefore, managing the Sino-American relationship should be Washington’s highest priority.
According to Blinken, the administration’s strategy is to “invest, align, and compete” with China. To invest more in U.S. industrial and technological prowess, the administration wants Congress to enact proposed legislation to support U.S. leadership in emerging scientific and technical sectors. Meanwhile, the State Department has redoubled efforts to align U.S. allies and partners on behalf of the existing U.S.-favored international order under challenge by China, Russia, and other revisionist states. The Defense Department has also been fortifying U.S. military partnerships in the region. The administration sees these economic and military initiatives, whether focused internally or outwardly in Asia, as mutually reinforcing. Combined, they position the United States well to compete with China.
The new “invest, align, and compete” framework is less elegant than the previous 3-C “competition, cooperation, and confrontation” formulation. Blinken still denies a U.S. effort to reflexively “stand against China.” Rather, the United States will work with China on areas of common interest, such as managing global climate change, while “stand[ing] up for peace, security and human dignity.” Yet, in addition to repeating long-standing complaints regarding Chinese policies, the administration regretted that Beijing was pursuing “asymmetric decoupling, seeking to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.” Instead of “decoupling” from the PRC, the administration would strive to redirect Chinese foreign policies in a more positive direction by shaping the international environment in which Beijing operates.
Unsurprisingly given that the speech was scheduled for an earlier delivery, Biden’s Asia trip aligned with Blinken’s presentation. At each event, the Biden team highlighted presidential interest in Asia to counter the narrative that a future PRC-led regional order was inevitable due to U.S. decline—with the implication that other Asian states should therefore accommodate rather than resist Beijing’s regional preeminence. Another goal was to profile the administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which was rolled out in February and quickly overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this regard, Biden’s trip also aimed to counter regional concerns that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine would embolden Beijing to use force in Asia.
For example, in Tokyo, Biden stressed the “unwavering U.S. commitment to the region, and underscored that his strategy will be matched with resources and steady implementation.” Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized the imperative of keeping the Indo-Pacific region free of major war, noting the devastating impact of the Ukraine war on the world. Kishida insisted that such a “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force...should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific.” In their joint statement, Biden and Kishida declared “that the rules-based international order is indivisible; threats to international law and the free and fair economic order anywhere constitute a challenge to our values and interests everywhere.” Both leaders saw the international coalition that the West had organized against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine as a model for how the democracies might respond to military aggression against Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, which Biden reaffirmed fell under the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
The administration, seeking to counter criticisms that it has been insufficiently attentive to Asian economic issues, exploited Biden’s trip as an opportunity to relaunch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Though still somewhat long on vision and short on details, the IPEF has enormous potential due to its members’ comprising more than one-third of the world economy. That twelve countries initially joined reflects not only the widespread regional interest in cooperating economically with the United States, but also the IPEF’s paucity of rigorous requirements or means of enforcement. These were apparently discarded to maximize membership. That nonmembers can selectively participate in only select IPEF activities and receive benefits from the public goods the IPEF generates is also a mixed blessing, as it may encourage free riding.
These compromises naturally reminded people about the superior Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the United States crafted and then abandoned. In his joint news conference with Biden, Kishida twice expressed his hope the United States would rejoin the TPP, now rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The IPEF also falls short of the high standards embedded in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. U.S. officials will need to make continuing progress in executing the Framework, with attention focused on a few critical projects with adequate funding, rather than spreading too thinly or competing with existing frameworks, in order to demonstrate that the IPEF is more than another Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA).
During his stay in Tokyo, Biden participated in another leadership meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”), with newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India joining Kishida and Biden. In their joint communique, the leaders criticized various policies of China and Russia without explicitly mentioning these countries. Of note, the text highlights the members’ “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient” and their support for the “principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes ... and freedom of navigation and overflight.” The Quad announced some novel projects to develop infrastructure, enhance Asia’s cybersecurity, and promote secure and diversified supply chains.
In particular, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) holds promise to assist Asian countries to monitor, and ideally deter, transnational and nation-state threats at sea. These challenges encompass illegal fishing, piracy, and aggressive paramilitary maritime militia. According to the White House fact sheet, the “IPMDA will offer a near-real-time, integrated, and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture” to “partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region.” Expanding partners’ collective maritime domain awareness will require substantial attention to network and improve the different assets and authorities of the participating members.
Biden attracted the most media attention for his comments in Tokyo regarding Taiwan. Though reaffirming the “One China” policy, Biden insisted that the United States would assist Taiwan if Beijing tried to seize the island by force. Biden explained that such aggression would, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “dislocate the entire region.” In his George Washington University speech, though, Blinken asserted that the administration had not changed the contours of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. It remains based on the three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances, and the Taiwan Relations Act. The United States still opposes either side’s unilaterally changing the status quo, maintains strong but unofficial ties with Taiwan, and demands the peaceful resolution of Cross-Strait differences.
Still, the poor China-U.S. relationship makes both Washington and Beijing more comfortable pressing a harder line on Taiwan despite the harm to Sino-American ties. In Washington’s view, Beijing has been challenging the status quo by pushing more favorable interpretations of previous agreements, inducing other countries to isolate Taiwan, and excluding Taiwanese participation from multinational efforts to manage global problems. U.S. officials have also complained about the expanding PLA military activities in the island’s vicinity. In response, the United States, under both the Biden and Trump administrations, has strived to deepen bilateral collaboration with Taiwan and widen its multilateral ties with U.S. allies and partners. Though controversial, Biden seemed to acknowledge that the United States will do at least as much for Taiwan as it has for Ukraine in the face of external aggression, leaving ambiguous whether U.S. forces would engage in actual combat operations.