When it comes to foreign policy, the Biden administration ended the year on a particularly triumphant note by touting its success in restoring America’s global network of alliances and strategic partnerships.
In his year-ender press conference at the US State Department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, upon his return from a December trip to Southeast Asia, reminded reporters that “the world doesn’t organize itself when we’re not engaged,” thus the need for Washington to remain committed to “rebuilding the foundations of American foreign policy.”
Following months of hyperactive diplomacy, which saw the top US diplomat meeting counterparts from Asia and Europe on multiple occasions, Blinken claimed the US is now “more aligned” with allies on a whole host of contentious geopolitical issues, including China.
“We’re much more aligned with our allies and partners now than we were a year ago on nearly every issue,” Blinken said, emphasizing how the US is now in a much stronger position to stop “China’s efforts to challenge the rules-based international order.”
In response to the Biden administration’s proactive efforts to enlist allies and partners against Beijing, the resurgent Asian power responded with diplomatic insouciance.
Shortly after Blinken’s address, Beijing’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, struck a confident note by emphasizing that “China is not the former Soviet Union, and the US is not the US of 30 years ago,” thus dismissing Washington’s diplomatic efforts as nothing but a mindless embrace of Cold War mentality.
China has reasons to remain confident. While the Biden administration has managed to restore frayed alliances in Western Europe and Southeast Asia, and deepen ties with new strategic partners such as India, it has yet to put forward any clear economic and defense strategy in Asia.
Overall, the Biden administration has mostly picked up low-hanging strategic fruit throughout its first year in office, but it’s bound to face a far more challenging strategic landscape next year.
Short-term strategic objectives
In fairness, the Biden administration has been relatively successful in achieving its short-term strategic objectives. To begin with, median global confidence in the US presidency has jumped from a low of 17% in the final months of the Trump administration to as high as 75% under Biden, according to the Pew Research Center survey.
The Democratic administration also managed to assuage concerns among key allies, from Japan and Taiwan to the Philippines, who worried about a potentially more dovish approach towards a resurgent China.
For instance, after Biden’s election victory last year, Huang Shih-chieh, from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, openly admitted that “our biggest worry is that with a Biden presidency he may adjust his policy.”
In response, Chen Ming-tong, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, had to reassure Taiwanese lawmakers, “there’s no need to worry about a change of ownership in the White House,” since “although there might be some changes in Biden’s tactics towards China, there will be no change in its China strategy.”
The Biden administration largely put all those concerns to rest by openly backing the self-ruling island nation, which is regarded as a renegade province by China. On multiple occasions, the US president went so far as (erroneously) claiming that Washington has a treaty-based defense obligation to Taiwan, thus raising the prospect of direct military intervention on behalf of the beleaguered democratic nation.
Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, Blinken also repeatedly reassured the neighboring Philippines, a formal treaty ally, that Washington would come to the Southeast Asian country’s rescue in an event that Filipino vessels, troops or aircraft came under attack by a hostile third party.
The Biden administration also successfully countered China’s “vaccine diplomacy” through the large-scale donation of US-made Covid-19 vaccines to critical regions in the Indo-Pacific.
Southeast Asia alone, for instance, received more than 23 million vaccine doses and over US$158 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance from the Biden administration. The figure was at about 300 million US-made vaccine doses across the Indo-Pacific region.
The success of the US’ own “vaccine diplomacy” was fully on display earlier this year, when the Beijing-friendly Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte public thanked the Biden administration and, accordingly, decided to fully restore the all-crucial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a crucial defense deal that remained in limbo amid disagreements over democracy and human rights issues last year.
Above all, the Biden administration also embraced the maxim that 80% of diplomacy is simply showing up, especially in regional fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits. To this end, Blinken and other top US national security officials embarked on “summit shopping” across the Indo-Pacific.
While Biden became the first US president in three years to attend the ASEAN summit this year, Blinken held a flurry of bilateral and multilateral meetings, both virtual and in-person, with his Southeast Asian counterparts.
Within only a few weeks, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice-President Kamala Harris visited multiple Southeast Asian capitals, with Singapore and Vietnam serving as hosts on two successive occasions.
In his year-ender press conference, Blinken touted the US’ strategic reset with a whole host of allies and partners across the world after months of hyperactive diplomacy.
“We’re in a stronger geopolitical position to deal with countries like China and Russia as they seek to undermine the international system that we built and led – a system that has made the world freer, more prosperous, more secure, more connected and has allowed our country and people to thrive,” Blinken claimed.
The reality, however, is that the Biden administration will face three major challenges next year after having picked up the low-hanging strategic fruit.
First of all, the Biden administration has yet to unveil a single, concrete economic initiative in the Indo-Pacific. China’s bilateral trade with ASEAN is inching closer to $700 billion, which is twice larger than US’ trade with the vital region.
Thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has also been able to press ahead with launching a whole host of big-ticket projects this year, including a $6 billion high-speed railway in Laos and a modern metro line in neighboring Vietnam.
So far, however, there are no clear indications of any countervailing initiative by the Biden administration, especially on the public infrastructure and trade fronts. Even the US’ seemingly modest yet timely Digital Free Trade Agreement proposal has languished in uncertainty and bureaucratic bickering.
Moreover, the US is facing resistance to its “integrated deterrence” strategy, especially in Southeast Asia, where even treaty allies such as the Philippines have expressed reluctance to join any potential anti-China defense alliance.
Hardly a single Southeast Asian country, for instance, openly supporter the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal.
A fatalistic stance
As for the Philippines, which initially backed the AUKUS deal just for Duterte to walk it back days later, the country is unlikely to pursue closer defense ties with the US should Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the current frontrunner for next year’s elections, becomes the next Philippine president.
“The policy of engagement which the Duterte government is implementing, although it is criticized, it is the right way to go. Because whatever we do, we can’t go to war,” the ex-dictator’s son, who is now leading pre-election surveys by massive margins, said in one of his rare foreign policy interviews this year.
“There are those who say we buy patrol boats, then the jets, just in case we get to fight. Why would we think we will fight? Then that war will be over in less than a week. We’re defeated already, let’s not think that way,” Marcos Jr added, taking an openly fatalistic stance in favor of China.
Finally, the US is bound to face growing pressure amid rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, with China stepping up its military intimidation of the self-ruling island nation. In his year-ender address, the Chinese ambassador to Washington openly warned Washington to tread “very cautiously” on the Taiwan issue, since it’s “the main potential factor that could plunge the US and China into conflict.”
Overall, it’s increasingly clear that the Biden administration, having exhausted low-hanging fruit, faces hard choices in its long-term aim to constrain China’s resurgence in the Indo-Pacific.