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Foreign Policy

Biden’s Asia Maneuvering to Offset China

May 31, 2022
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University

Coming on the heels of convening his “Special U.S.-ASEAN Summit” at the White House on May 12-13, attended by ten ASEAN leaders, U.S. President Joseph Biden spent five days in South Korea and Japan—his first physical visit to the region since becoming president. The trip was intended to signal his administration’s often-stated prioritization of the Indo-Pacific region, although the trip came under the shadow of the ongoing Ukraine war and crisis. 

Although Biden’s stops in Seoul and Tokyo were bilateral state visits, while in Japan he also participated in another head-of-state summit among the four “Quad” countries (Australia, India, Japan, United States). Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attended within 24 hours of being sworn into office. 

The Quad has become a centerpiece of Biden foreign policy—reaffirming the multiple qualities and interests that the four nations share in common politically, economically, and geostrategically. In their previous virtual and in-person summits, the Quad members have established six priority areas of collaboration: climate change, cybersecurity, fighting COVID-19 and providing vaccines, critical emerging technologies, infrastructure, and space (working groups have been established in each area). At their meeting in Tokyo, a seventh priority was added: enhancing collective “maritime domain awareness.” This was added primarily because of the expanding operational footprint of China’s maritime militia, coast guard, and fishing vessels. While China’s overall regional presence is never explicitly mentioned in Quad statements, it is the silent “elephant in the room” and real glue to the group’s geostrategic rationale.

Also at the Quad meeting, the Biden administration rolled out its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Many months in preparation, the IPEF was generally welcomed, as it signaled U.S. economic commitment to the region, but was immediately viewed by most observers as underwhelming. IPEF is certainly no substitute for TPP or RCEP. Most countries in the region still resent the Trump administration’s stunning withdrawal from TPP—with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida pointedly noting in Tokyo that the door is still open to the United States. 

Despite the intended symbolism of U.S. economic engagement in the region, IPEF was rolled out before it was thought out. Many areas were left unspecified—there was no mention of digital trade, cooperation in critical technologies, export controls, cross-border investment, standards, and many other areas. Nor was access to the American market included. Given its rushed nature and lack of specific substance, there is a real danger that IPEF may be stillborn. Unsurprisingly, China (which was not included among the 13 members) immediately denounced it. 

Beijing was clearly displeased with Biden’s entire visit to the Northeast Asian region—viewing it as part of America’s alleged attempts to “contain” China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made several public statements criticizing the United States as the president visited South Korea and Japan. In one broadside, he called the U.S. Indo-Pacific policy as “bound to be a failed strategy” while describing IPEF as “a big question mark and hidden plot.” 

But it was President Biden’s comments in Tokyo regarding Taiwan that generated the biggest backlash from Beijing. For the third time in public, Biden claimed that the United States had a “commitment” to “militarily intervene” in the event of the use of military force by China against Taiwan. Biden’s statements, in response to a journalists’ questions, made headlines around the world. As with his two previous public statements to this effect, the White House (and those officials traveling with the president) immediately tried to tamp down the firestorm by arguing that there was “no change” in America’s “One China Policy,” and that Biden’s statements were consistent with longstanding policy. 

This is factually incorrect. No American president, except George W. Bush in a muddled interview on April 26, 2001, has ever publicly committed the U.S. to militarily intervene in the event of mainland Chinese military action against the island. This is not what the Taiwan Relations Act legally mandates, nor has it been U.S. policy across multiple administrations. What consecutive American administrations have endorsed is the strategy of “strategic ambiguity”—that the United States will not say what it would do if Taiwan came under attack from the mainland. It all depends on the actual context and precipitating events.  

By explicitly stating—three times now—that he believes that the United States has a “commitment” to intervene with American forces, Biden has gone where no American president has ever gone before. These triple statements cannot be dismissed as examples of Biden’s famous gaffes. While likely intended to deter such aggressive action by Beijing, to reassure allies in the region (notably Japan), and to demonstrate “rock solid support” for Taiwan, Biden’s statements muddied much more than they clarified. 

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