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Foreign Policy

Biden’s Balancing Act

Mar 30, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

All three U.S. presidents of the last two decades —George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump —have tried to balance the Asia-Pacific region with the Middle East in the distribution of strategic resources. The new president, Joe Biden, will be no exception, but his administration will have a new approach. While Biden will send more hard resources to the Asia-Pacific, he will have to deal with Middle East affairs more by diplomatic means.

In the new century, the Asia-Pacific and Middle East have become the two most important geographical areas in the U.S. strategic landscape. The United States has regarded China’s robust economic growth as a factor in redefine the importance of the Asia-Pacific in global geopolitics, while regarding unconventional threats in the Middle East as a primary challenge to its national security — even as the Middle East is pivotal to its global strategy.

How to make a balanced input of resources in the two regions, therefore, was a task faced by the three preceding administrations. George W. Bush, at the beginning of his term in 2001, defined China as a strategic competitor, and he increased strategic investment in the Asia-Pacific. Then the attack on 9/11 made the U.S. acutely aware that the unconventional threat of terrorism, combined with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, had become a major threat to U.S. national security. The U.S. therefore diverted its strategic focus from the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East.

Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 largely by blaming his predecessor for the two broad Middle East wars, which came at the cost of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, proposed her signature “pivot to Asia” policy in October 2011, and Obama followed with a speech a month later to the Australian parliament saying that he had directed his national security team to prioritize the Asia-Pacific.

Despite these announcements, the U.S. had to expend strategic resources and policymaking energy to deal with Middle East issues, including fighting ISIS, negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and a number of other issues.

Donald Trump did not show much interest in strategy, but the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishments did. During Trump’s term, the U.S. increased its strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific, and even initiated a new concept referencing the Indo-Pacific region during Trump’s presidency. At the same time, the Trump administration was deeply involved in Middle East affairs, launching a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, bridging divisions between Israel and some Arab countries and antagonizing Russia in Syria, to name some examples.

All in all, while the U.S. intended to shift its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, it couldn’t avoid becoming entangled in the Middle East. The reasons are numerous. At the strategic level, the U.S. still regards the Middle East as relevant in its global strategy of hegemony, especially with its national security threatened by international terrorism. More important, however, is that issues in the Middle East deeply involve U.S. domestic politics. Pro-Israel lobbyists always push the U.S. into adopting an overly protective stance toward Israel’s security and interests. The trauma of the 1979 hostage crisis is frequently mentioned in U.S. to remind the White House to take a tough policy on Iran. And U.S. media always question the White House on human rights in the Middle East.

Unexceptionally, the Biden administration will have to face a similar dilemma, as the U.S. intends to move its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific while being unable to avoid entanglements in the Middle East. Yet, judging by his latest policy announcements, Biden will likely take a different approach to balancing the two regions.

The Asia-Pacific region has remained stable and peaceful for decades. There are no serious military confrontations and no hot wars, unlike other regions, such as the Middle East, the South Caucasus or Eastern Europe. China has stated numerous times that it desires no confrontation with the U.S., but the U.S. has reached a bipartisan domestic consensus, unfortunately, to contain and confront China.

In his Feb. 4 remarks at the U.S. State Department, Biden said the U.S. will confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive actions; and push back on its attacks on human rights, intellectual property and global governance. The Interim National Security Guidance issued in early March categorized China as “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 order.”

Americans’ cognition about China comes largely via ideological filters. Cognition always informs action, even it is false. False cognition, together with the U.S. calculation of maintaining hegemony, will be a primary driver of U.S. foreign policy and strategy. As a result, the Biden administration will be much more resolute in focusing on the Asia-Pacific and containing China — a focus his three predecessors could not maintain — and will invest hard strategic resources in the Asia-Pacific including cutting-edge weapons and well-trained military personnel.

As the latest Quad summit in early March indicated, the U.S. will coordinate and reorganize its alliances in the Indo-Pacific area to contain China, even though such efforts may not bear fruit, since none of the other three Quad countries want to sacrifice their own bilateral relations with China.

A focus on the Asia-Pacific does not mean that the U.S. will give up its strategic presence in the Middle East, though it is short of strategic resources within the context of a general decline. But Biden will have to take an approach different from his predecessors.

First, the U.S. will maintain minimal deterrence capability in the Middle East. The bombing of Syria in late February in no way means America is coming back to the region, but one can expect minimal deterrence against Iran and pro-Iran militias. The U.S. explicitly said it would retaliate against frequent disturbing attacks on U.S. nationals and facilities in Iraq. In order to implement its strategy in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. can afford neither to have a large strategic presence in the Middle East nor another sizable war in the region.

Second, the U.S. will resort to diplomatic means to address major regional issues. Early in September last year, Biden wrote on CNN’s website that he will come back to the Iran nuclear deal by multilateral and diplomatic means, which he called a smart way to be tough on Iran. Moreover, his administration will create or participate in multilateral mechanisms to address other issues, including Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, to maintain its influence in the region.

Third, the Biden administration will likely resume some economic aid to the region. Biden will likely resume U.S. aid to Palestine, which was cancelled by his predecessor, to reestablish U.S. influence as an anchor in the Israel-Palestine peace process. He will also likely provide economic aid for other Middle East countries, such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, for the same purpose.

All in all, the Biden administration, as a result of its domestic consensus to contain and confront China, will regard it as a priority to invest hard strategic resources in Asia-Pacific. For that purpose, the U.S. will have to depend on diplomatic and economic measures to maintain its strategic presence in the Middle East.

This kind of arrangement looks reasonable but is doomed to fail. The U.S. regards itself as the natural hegemon of the world, and its ambition does not actually allow it to stay away from other regions. Thus, the Biden administration might want reduce its strategic presence in the Middle East, but events on the ground might push it in the opposite direction.

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