Foreign policy challenges that U.S. President Joe Biden faces in Asia

Even as Asia remains the most important frontline of United States President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, there are clear indications that his administration will continue, perhaps even deepen, the U.S’ hybrid war on China.

Published : Feb 16, 2021 06:00 IST

The inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden broadcast at a shopping mall in Beijing on January 21, 2021.

The inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden broadcast at a shopping mall in Beijing on January 21, 2021.

Governmentsaround the world, from China to Colombia, are watching Washington, D.C. United States President Joe Biden’s foreign policy team has been put in place, but it has not yet cemented its positions on a series of important issues. Even where Biden’s nominated Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser, Jacob “Jake” Sullivan, have made their views clear in public, there is no official clarity and no established tone regarding some of the most important foreign policy challenges that President Biden will face. These challenges run the gamut from the U.S.-imposed hybrid war on China to the U.S. sanctions on 30 countries to the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Biden certainly will not be as provocative in his tone as his predecessor Donald Trump, but it is not clear if he will diverge from Trump on many of the main foreign policy themes. These themes are not original to Trump but are long-term inheritances of U.S. power projection in the world. The most important frontline of Biden’s foreign policy will be in Asia.


The major issue before the Biden administration is how the U.S. will engage with the Chinese government. Following the outlines of Barack Obama’s policy, Trump drove a hostile policy against Beijing. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was designed to halt Chinese social and economic development by a combination of trade and military threats; Trump’s trade war had the same goal, but with a harsher tone.

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A U.S. military build-up around China had begun decades ago, with forced confrontations by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea a normal feature of U.S. policy. What differentiated Obama and Trump—and is likely to differentiate Biden—from previous presidencies was that China no longer felt weakened by the expansion of U.S. power. China’s social and economic achievements have given it a new political will to stand up for itself. This is what has made the U.S. policy since Obama more dangerous; China will not subordinate itself to U.S. power, and U.S. power is unwilling to allow China to develop.

Focus on democracy, human rights

For this reason, Blinken has said that Trump “was right” to take a “tougher approach to China.” Like his predecessor Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Blinken focussed on China’s policy regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and attempted to keep the focus on “human rights” rather than the anxiety in Silicon Valley of China’s scientific and technological advances. The soaring rhetoric about U.S. defence of democracy and human rights at the same time as the U.S. continues its war in Afghanistan and persists in destabilising democracies such as Venezuela and Bolivia, masks the real issue here, which is not about human rights but about economic power.

When Biden’s Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen went for her nomination hearing before the Senate, she raised just these economic anxieties. Janet Yellen described China’s trade policies as “abusive, unfair, and illegal”. The main issue here, she said, was that China has “been stealing intellectual property and engaging practices that give it an unfair technological advantage, including forced technology transfers.”

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Yellen did not talk about human rights, but about the decisive policy moves made by China to develop its scientific and technological ability, particularly in telecommunications and in green technology. These developments, Janet Yellen said, will be met by “the full array of tools” at the U.S.’ disposal.

Indo-Pacific command

In 2007, the George W. Bush administration created a new platform called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad). The Quad brought together four countries—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—who shared a broad set of interests, notably antipathy to the new dynamism of China. Military exercises were to have been the core part of the Quad, but the platform fell apart after the election of Kevin Rudd in Australia in 2008 and after the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided that a policy against China would not help advance India’s national interests. This platform would remain dormant until 2017.

In 2011, Obama told his national security team that the U.S. government must “make our presence and missions in Asia-Pacific a top priority.” For Obama, the U.S.’ historical focus on Europe, Latin America and West Asia was not allowing his country to see the more pressing danger, namely Chinese scientific and technological advances. Obama tasked Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to run this “pivot to Asia.”

Conditions did not favour Campbell, who then left public office to run The Asia Group, a private consultancy firm based in Washington D.C. and Hong Kong. Obama’s manoeuvre was structured around a massive trade deal (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 2015) and the strengthening of the U.S. military forces in its bases around China. On the last point, the Obama administration helped remove the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in 2010 when he pledged to remove the U.S. military base in Okinawa.

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During Trump’s tenure, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was deepened. Trump decided not to follow Obama’s trade policy. He withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, essentially killing it, and he started an aggressive trade war against China. Trump’s military leadership created the Indo-Pacific Command to focus attention on a military policy to hem in China. Since the new political leaders in Australia, India, and Japan were all from the right-wing, Trump revived the Quad and made it a cornerstone of his military pressure on China. Before he left office, Trump gave the Legion of Merit, one of the highest U.S. awards, to the three heads of government of Australia (Scott Morrison), India (Narendra Modi), and Japan (Shinzo Abe) who helped revive the Quad.

Every indication possible suggests that Biden will continue this. He has brought Kurt Campbell back into the government as his “Asia Tsar”. Campbell has quickly reshaped his office so that he now has three senior directors, all Obama era veterans: Sumona Guha (South Asia), Andrea Kendall-Taylor (Russia and Central Asia), and Laura Rosenberger (China). Laura Rosenberger, a close associate of Antony Blinken, has been public with her criticism of China’s management of the pandemic (in Foreign Affairs , April 2020) and of China’s medical internationalism (in Newsweek , May 2020). Her tone would have fit in well with Pompeo, which suggests the deep continuities in U.S. policy regarding China and the Indo-Pacific in general. The expanded Asia portfolio can be contrasted to Biden’s West Asia team, which has one only senior director.

Defence of Japan’s interests

In November 2020, Biden spoke to Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga about the tensions between China and Japan over a range of islands. The conflict, Biden assured Suga, came within Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Alliance. This suggests that the U.S. is prepared to use military force to defend Japanese interests. During Blinken’s nomination hearing, he said that the U.S. “would like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world” and that the U.S.’ “commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.” Furthermore, Blinken said that the U.S. would continue to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, which means that the Trump military aid would persist.

Both these statements suggest that the Biden administration will continue and perhaps even deepen the U.S. hybrid war on China. After his inauguration, Biden spoke to a number of world leaders about U.S. policy in Asia. He told Japan’s Suga that the U.S. is committed to “provide extended deterrence to Japan”. The U.S. and Japan alliance, they agreed, is the “cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific”. This was the signal sent to India, when Jake Sullivan spoke to India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval; they spoke about “the importance of continuing close cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.”

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It will take some time before the entire Biden policy is clarified, but what is already clear is that the U.S. will continue its bipartisan hybrid war on China. It will, for this pressure campaign, rely upon Australia, India and Japan—as part of the Quad—and other countries such as South Korea. However, Australia, Japan and South Korea continue to have enduring trade ties with China, something that the U.S. governments have not been able to change. All these countries joined China in the largest trade bloc yet established, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that was signed in November 2020. India largely remained outside RCEP for reasons of the Indian government’s fealty to Washington D.C.

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