What Asia Gets From Biden's New National Security Strategy – Foreign Policy

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Analysis: What Asia Gets From Biden’s New National Security Strategy What Asia Gets From Biden’s New National S… | View Comments ()
For Asia, there is bad news and good news from the National Security Strategy released by the Biden administration last week. First, the bad: Washington’s decision to double down on superpower competition with China will dash the hopes of some in the region that the Trump administration’s confrontational course was a flash in the pan. But there is good news, too: Washington’s continued commitment to the Indo-Pacific despite a major war in Europe will be welcomed by Asian allies and partners. What’s more, by tempering the Biden administration’s framing of geopolitical competition as an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy, the new strategy will likely increase the room for engagement between Asia and the United States.
Since Washington’s policy turn under then-President Donald Trump, Asia has watched warily the breakdown of four decades of economic integration and geopolitical convergence between the United States and China. For many countries in the region, the new reality of superpower competition was a problem they tried to wish away with the often-repeated mantra of not wanting to choose.
Some hoped that the confrontation with China was just a one-time aberration under Trump that would be corrected by the new Democratic administration. That this was wishful thinking was already evident in March 2021, when the Biden administration’s interim security policy guidance underlined continuity with its predecessor, not a break. Still, governments and observers in Asia continued to hope for an easing of Sino-U.S. tensions—perhaps in connection with a potential meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the upcoming G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.
For Asia, there is bad news and good news from the National Security Strategy released by the Biden administration last week. First, the bad: Washington’s decision to double down on superpower competition with China will dash the hopes of some in the region that the Trump administration’s confrontational course was a flash in the pan. But there is good news, too: Washington’s continued commitment to the Indo-Pacific despite a major war in Europe will be welcomed by Asian allies and partners. What’s more, by tempering the Biden administration’s framing of geopolitical competition as an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy, the new strategy will likely increase the room for engagement between Asia and the United States.
Since Washington’s policy turn under then-President Donald Trump, Asia has watched warily the breakdown of four decades of economic integration and geopolitical convergence between the United States and China. For many countries in the region, the new reality of superpower competition was a problem they tried to wish away with the often-repeated mantra of not wanting to choose.
Some hoped that the confrontation with China was just a one-time aberration under Trump that would be corrected by the new Democratic administration. That this was wishful thinking was already evident in March 2021, when the Biden administration’s interim security policy guidance underlined continuity with its predecessor, not a break. Still, governments and observers in Asia continued to hope for an easing of Sino-U.S. tensions—perhaps in connection with a potential meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the upcoming G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.
The new strategy lays out the China challenge more decisively than any U.S. policy document in the past. It affirms that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” It also notes Beijing’s “ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” To “compete responsibly with [China] to defend our interests,” the White House promises to “align our efforts with our network of allies and partners.”
For those in Asia who hope the current policies will be short-lived, the new document notes that “that the next ten years will be the decisive decade.” The document points to the current moment as an “inflection point, where the choices we make and the priorities we pursue today will set us on a course that determines our competitive position long into the future.” Put simply, the United States is determined to defend its primacy against China in the economic and security domains. Washington is losing no time in casting its tougher China strategy into policy: Only days before the document was released, Washington announced sweeping new sanctions designed to eliminate Beijing’s access to advanced semiconductor technology.
The new strategy lays out the China challenge more decisively than any U.S. policy document in the past.
For governments in Asia, the conclusion must be that competition with China is now an enduring feature of U.S. policy. Meanwhile, Beijing—whose increasingly confrontational course under Xi shook the United States into rethinking its China policy—has surely recognized by now that the U.S. policy shift is real. Beijing can therefore be expected to reinforce its own policies to confront Washington.
As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it, the Chinese Communist Party “has concluded that there has been a long-term bipartisan hardening in U.S. strategy, including deep changes on Taiwan and the ‘one-China policy.’ In China’s view, Japan, Australia, India and [NATO] have also grown more adversarial, looking to balance Chinese power through institutional arrangements.”
Whether they like it or not, Asian nations will have to come to terms with the profound shift in the Sino-U.S. relationship. Realists in the region have seen this coming, and some of them see opportunities for states in the region to leverage the rivalry for their benefit. Former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, for example, argues that, for Southeast Asian governments, “not choosing does not mean laying low and hoping for the best.” Sino-U.S. rivalry, he argues, “creates agency to pursue our own interests because it widens the space and opportunity for manoeuvre.”
The good news from the new National Security Strategy is that the Biden administration, which has devoted significant time to engaging contested zones of the Indo-Pacific, appears to understand the dilemmas of countries in the region caught between the United States and China. “Many of our allies and partners,” the document notes, “stand on the frontlines of [China’s] coercion and are rightly determined to seek to ensure their own autonomy, security, and prosperity.” Washington promises to “support their ability to make sovereign decisions in line with their interests and values, free from external pressure.” The emphasis on countries’ “sovereign decisions” marks a much-needed departure from Washington’s familiar “with us or against us” attitude.
The new strategy also seeks to calm Asian worries about the consequences of unrestrained superpower competition. The document underlines the tension between competition and the need to collaborate with rivals on global issues, from climate change to pandemics. That is where the idea of “responsible competition” with China comes up. Translating this into actual policy, however, might not be easy.
For those in Asia who have been on the receiving end of Chinese power, such as India and Japan, the National Security Strategy offers strong reassurance that the United States will remain committed to the region despite a major war in Europe and traditional distractions in the Middle East. Washington, the strategy emphasizes, has “entered a consequential new period of American foreign policy that will demand more of the United States in the Indo-Pacific than has been asked of us since the Second World War. No region will be of more significance to the world and to everyday Americans than the Indo-Pacific.”
Skeptics might question the United States’ ability to simultaneously confront Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific. But the U.S. strategy of developing a flexible network of alliances and partnerships provides a basis for engaging both challenges. In Asia, this includes long-established bilateral treaty alliances as well as new minilateral arrangements, including the AUKUS partnership and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The idea, the document explains, is to create “a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships.” This flexible approach is critical to building strong partnerships with countries, such as India, that have been traditionally averse to formal alliances and blocs.
The National Security Strategy retains the ideological framework of a struggle between democracies and autocracies, an idea that resonates poorly in Asia and other parts of the developing world. But the document also makes explicit, in a way that recent U.S. rhetoric has not, that there will be leeway for engagement with partners that are not necessarily democratic. The new global coalitions that Washington wants to build include “countries that do not embrace democratic institutions but nevertheless depend upon and support a rules-based international system.” This departure from the initial framing suggests the Biden team is willing to adapt to Asian realities in dealing with the threat from China.
This important shift hews to the golden rule of any strategy, which is the need to define a hierarchy of priorities. An attempt to address all challenges will succeed in resolving none. The new strategy acknowledges that countering China must take precedence over promotion of democracy in Asia, which is home to diverse political systems. Support for Asian democracy is likely to remain an important long-term ideological objective for Washington. But it is now being tempered to cope with the more urgent challenge of winning the competition with China.
C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja
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