US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
Then-president Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. His successor in the White House, Joe Biden, has not reversed that move. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

When US president Bill Clinton was hosting the Leaders’ Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Seattle in 1993, he pledged to shift the focus of US foreign policy from an old Europe to a surging Asia, only to end up being dragged into the civil war in the former Yugoslavia while engaging in futile attempts in achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

And then the attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, and Clinton’s successor George W Bush invested much of his time and resources on the Mideast-centered war on terrorism, launching costly “regime change” and “nation building” campaigns, while treating the dramatic geopolitical and geo-economic changes in Asia, led by the rise of China, as a global sideshow.

So when Barack Obama, America’s self-described “first Pacific president,” declared that he would shift US geo-strategic and geo-economic focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, pursuing a “pivot” to Asia, America’s partners in the region applauded.

They hoped that with Americans exhausted from their costly interventions in the Middle East, the direction of US foreign policy would change.

Obama did try to reduce the costs of American involvement in the Middle East by withdrawing US troops from Iraq and by reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. 

At the same time, his new focus on Asia was highlighted in its promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement linking the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries that was signed in 2016.

But the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) forced the US to return to the Middle East. And against the backdrop of a growing protectionist backlash and rising Sino-American tensions in Washington, Obama couldn’t get Congress to approve the TPP agreement, while talk about a new Cold War between China and the US alienated some Asian governments.

For president Donald Trump and his nationalist and protectionist agendas, engaging in Asia meant launching an economic war against China and pursuing trade battles with America’s partners in Asia, in addition to rejecting and burying the TPP deal. 

So when liberal Democrat Joe Biden, a longtime proponent of an internationalist foreign policy and of global trade liberalization, entered the White House, there were growing expectations in the Indo-Pacific region that the new president and his veteran Asia hands, Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, would open a new chapter in the relationship between Washington and its partners in the region.

Yet the early decision by the Biden administration not to rejoin the TPP agreement came as a major disappointment, but also made it clear that a revitalization of the trade liberalization policies pursued in the past by former Republican and Democratic administrations was not a realistic expectation. 

Anti-globalization views were taking hold of the two major parties, with the protectionist progressive wing gaining power among Democrats and economic nationalist Trumpists setting the agenda of the formerly pro-free-trade Republican Party. 

So it was not surprising that while President Biden has adopted a less stringent nationalist and protectionist rhetoric, he seems to be embracing his predecessor’s trade policies and calling for substituting free-trade principles for a “fair trade” approach.

Moreover, very much like the Trump administration, President Biden and his aides have depicted China as America’s new global military and economic rival, which would play the role that the Soviet Union did in US strategy during the Cold War. 

But unlike his predecessor, Biden has pledged not to pursue a policy of unilaterally containing China and instead to work together with US partners in the region to achieve that goal.

That approach may have been in line with the concerns of countries like India and Japan, not to mention Taiwan and Australia, which were worried about the growing power of a traditional regional adversary, China. 

And they indeed agreed to join the Biden administration in activating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, composed of the United States, Australia, India and Japan, as a regional forum meant to respond to threats from China.

And the formation of a trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) under which Australia would allow to operate, and potentially construct, nuclear-powered submarines and the three governments would work together on developing hypersonic missiles, was probably seen in the region not as an Asia-centric initiative but as an attempt by the Anglo-Saxon nations to protect their interests there.

But as the Biden administration is ready to press forward with a series of events this month meant to demonstrate its commitment to raising the Indo-Pacific region to the top of its foreign policy, its approach may not produce much excitement in the Indo-Pacific. If anything, it may be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

It’s true that the heavily Asia-oriented May calendar, including the US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, President Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan and the first in-person meeting on May 24 of the members of the Quad, can be seen as demonstrating intense engagement by the Biden administration with Asia. 

In a way, it can be said that the administration is going through the motions of highlighting its commitment to continue maintaining US presence in the region, without emphasizing that in essence its strategy reflects core US economic and military interests and a hope that America’s partners in the region would support it.

But it’s not clear whether all of this effort would amount to more than media events and would result in the reinforcing US-led alliances in the region at a time when the Biden administration has been promoting a vision of a coalition of democracies engaged in the global struggle against an axis of authoritarian regimes, headed by China and Russia, as part of a strategy to protect a so-called “rules-based international order.”

Most of the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are opposed to the notion of turning the Indo-Pacific region into a staging area for a new Cold War between the US and China that would force them to choose between the two sides to the conflict with which they maintain close diplomatic and economic ties.

And in addition to compelling the US to re-refocus its attention on Europe and raising doubts about American ability to pivot to Asia, the American forceful response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has won only limited support in Asia. Hence India, which is supposed to become a central player is the US strategy of containing China, has resisted American pressure to support the sanctions against Russia.

The Biden administration’s plan for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) has been an attempt to demonstrate that its vision for the region hasn’t been predominantly diplomatic and military in nature. 

But then marketing it as an instrument to contain China’s influence isn’t in line with the position of most Asian nations that want to maintain strong economies ties with both the US and China, and have even welcomed China to join regional trade groupings, including a reshaped TPP.

The IPEF would focus on such issues as securing supply chains, infrastructure, clean energy and digital commerce. But unlike the TPP, the IPEF isn’t a free-trade agreement that commits the US to liberalize its trade and investment rules, and is meant primarily to respond to the pressure of the protectionist forces in the Democratic Party and its allies in the labor and environmental movements. 

But its lack of traditional American commitment to tariff reductions explains why the IPEF has disappointed US economic partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

From that perspective, while the Biden administration insists that it has adopted a multilateral approach in dealing with the Indo-Pacific region, its strategy isn’t so different from the one pursued by the Trump administration, embracing a confrontational approach toward China on the military and economic fronts and rejecting any trade liberalization agenda. 

To put it in simple terms, when it comes to China and Russia, the Biden administration is attempting to protect and advance its legitimate strategic and economic interests that are not necessarily in line with those of its partners in Asia while marketing it as an effort to defend a universal goal of a rules-based international order.

You can call it nationalism and protectionism with a friendly face. 

Leon Hadar

Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst. He is currently a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm. He authored Quagmire: America in the Middle East​ (Cato Institute, 1992) and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He has a PhD in international relations from American University in Washington, DC, and master's degrees from the schools of journalism and international affairs at Columbia University.