As the Biden administration doubles down on its anti-China Indo-Pacific agenda, Asia’s geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape will be further reshaped
By Yu Xiaodong
U.S. President Joe Biden has been following a tight schedule of Asia-centric and China-targeted diplomatic initiatives in recent weeks. Following the U.S.-ASEAN summit held on May 12-13 in Washington, Biden embarked on his inaugural trip to Asia as U.S. president, visiting Japan and South Korea. In Tokyo, Biden unveiled the much-anticipated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) on May 23. On May 24, Biden met with leaders from Japan, India and Australia at the Quad summit in Tokyo.
On May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a major China policy speech, outlining the Biden administration’s strategy to out-compete China in the next decade. Blinken said the U.S. is not looking for conflict or a new Cold War, but will compete with China through investing in critical infrastructure and working with allies to bolster supply chain security.
These activities are widely perceived to be part of Washington’s overall Indo-Pacific strategy. From the beginning of his administration, Biden and his team appeared to be trying every means to unite the U.S. allies and partners to compete strategically with China.
According to a 12-page document on its new Indo-Pacific strategy released on February 12, the U.S. vowed to “refocus security assistance” on the region, highlighted the importance of “a strong India,” and called to bring European countries to the region through the AUKUS security pact.
As the U.S. doubles down on its efforts and increases the pressure for regional countries to take sides between the U.S. and China, big power politics may have returned to the region after decades of peace and prosperity.
‘Unite to Divide’
“The U.S. is trying to piece together scattered pieces of a geopolitical jigsaw that covers political, economic and military fronts to encircle China in the region,” Yuan Zheng, a senior fellow with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said.
“Therefore, the essence of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is to establish several ‘minilateral’ mechanisms to create division and confrontation in the region,” Yuan added.
According to Fan Jishe, a professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region can be best described as a “unite to divide” policy.
In an article published on chinausfocus.com on May 31, Fan said that based on its Indo-Pacific document and the China policy outlined by Blinken, the U.S. now seeks to “shape the strategic environment in which China operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the U.S., its allies and partners.”
In order to do so, “the U.S. tries very hard to mobilize countries in the region using ideology, labeling the strategic competition between the U.S. and China as a struggle between democracy and autocracy,” Fan said.
The result, Fan said, is that “major powers in the region used to cooperate and coordinate in handling economic, security and proliferation challenges, but now strategic competition between them is coming back and haunting their interactions.”
Japan’s Rising Role
One of the most notable takeaways from Biden’s trip to Asia is Japan’s rising role in regional security affairs. Under the leadership of new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan is seeking a more significant political and security role in the region, which converges with the interests of the Biden administration.
In the Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement released on May 23, Kishida pledged Japan will secure a “substantial increase” to Japan’s defense budget, a determination “strongly supported” by Biden. The statement said that the U.S. reiterates its support for Japan’s permanent membership on a “reformed Security Council” of the United Nations.
In the past months, there has been a continuing internal debate on obtaining an “enemy base strike” capability, which is considered to suggest “pre-emptive” strikes, and is therefore illegal under Japan’s pacifist constitution. When asked about this issue during the Biden-Kishida press conference, Kishida said it means that “all the options will be there, not to exclude any one of them.”
Kishida is also to attend a NATO summit scheduled for late June, along with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, a move that may pave the way for NATO to expand into the Asia-Pacific.
According to Professor Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the focus of Washington’s Indo-Pacific agenda is to foster the establishment of an “Indo-Pacific version of NATO” in the Asia-Pacific region, which Zhu said will have a polarizing effect on the regional security situation. “If NATO expands to Asia, it will lead to an intensified arms race and heightened security tensions, something few regional countries would like to see,” Zhu said.
More importantly, Japan has gradually escalated its rhetoric on the Taiwan question. In April 2021, the Taiwan question was mentioned in the joint statement of the Japan-U.S. summit for the first time in 52 years. Japanese politicians, including former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, have hinted that Japan would take military action if there were an “emergency” or “big problems” in the Taiwan Strait.
According to a report released by Japan’s right-wing media outlet Sankei News on June 4, the Japanese government has decided to dispatch a staff member from Japan’s Ministry of Defense to its office in Taiwan, the first time Japan will send active-duty military staff to the island.
On June 1, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Kong Xuanyou warned that relations between China and Japan are at a crucial crossroads, as Japan, in apparent collaboration with the U.S., is increasingly considering China as a strategic threat. He urged Japan not to cross the red line on the Taiwan question.
Declining ASEAN Centrality
In contrast to the rising role of the U.S. traditional allies like Japan and Australia, the importance of ASEAN countries appears to be declining in Washington’s Indo-Pacific agenda, despite frequent diplomatic interaction between ASEAN and the U.S.
In the past year, ASEAN countries have been a major focus of the Biden administration’s diplomatic attentions, as high-ranking U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, made numerous visits to Southeast Asian countries.
In these visits, and in the latest U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit held in May in Washington, DC, the first time that leaders of ASEAN member states were invited to the U.S. capital as a group, the U.S. repeatedly reiterated that it recognizes and respects the central role of ASEAN and will uphold the principle of “ASEAN Centrality.”
Referring to the idea that ASEAN can play a leading and driving role in regional agenda setting, the centrality principle is crucial to ASEAN’s very existence and its relevance in the international arena as a regional bloc.
But as the Biden administration shifts its focus to consolidating its alliance system in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, ASEAN is becoming increasingly irrelevant in agenda-setting of regional affairs, especially in the security realm.
Moreover, the U.S.-ASEAN summit offered little substance in economic cooperation. Following a US$102 million financial package announced at the ASEAN-U.S. summit in 2021, the U.S. announced another US$150 million package to deepen ties, which amounts to just one-tenth of China’s pledge in 2021 of US$1.5 billion development assistance for the following three years.
Without lowering tariffs and greater market access, the recently unveiled IPEF also fell short of expectations for many ASEAN countries. That Biden chose to unveil the highly anticipated IPEF in his visit to Japan, not during the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, as many had expected, is a clear sign ASEAN is no longer at the center of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.
In an article released on May 10 by Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Nick Bisley, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at Melbourne-based La Trobe University, argued the emergence of security groups such as the Quad and AUKUS marks “ASEAN’s declining centrality to security regionalism, which may reduce ASEAN’s importance in the region and to its members.”
Bisley said that the emerging minilaterals backed by the U.S. are “small-scaled, narrowly focused, and result-oriented,” which are in stark contrast to “inclusive, process-focused mechanism” that are favored by ASEAN countries. “The new ‘minilaterals’ may indeed mark the end of the road for the existing inclusive approach to security multilateralism in the region,” Bisley warned.
‘The Asian Way’
Some regional leaders have pushed back and voiced their concerns more assertively. At the high-profile Shangri-La Security Dialogue held in Singapore on June 10-12, Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto called for the regional countries to stick to “the Asian way” to solving problems, which he defined as each country resolving its challenges “in a mutually beneficial way… without resorting to any force.”
Speaking at a plenary session on managing geopolitical competition in a multipolar region, Prabowo said Asia “has been for many centuries the crossroad of imperialism, big power domination and exploitation” and the common experiences of “being dominated, enslaved, [and] exploited” have forced regional countries to strive to create a peaceful environment which has brought peace and prosperity to the region in the past 50 years.
In a veiled response to the U.S. pressure on regional countries to take sides against China, Prabowo reiterated Indonesia’s policy of strategic neutrality. “Your enemy is not necessarily my enemy,” Prabowo said, citing a well-known quote by late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Highlighting that “Indonesia opted to be not engaged in any military alliance,” Prabowo added countries should respect China’s national interests and its “rightful rise back to its position as a great civilization.”
During his visit to Japan on May 24-27, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on regional countries to focus on “collective security” to form “an open and inclusive regional architecture.”
Calling on countries to go “beyond forming alliances and formal groupings of like-minded partners, like the Quad or the AUKUS grouping,” Lee said they should also make “engagement and confidence and trust building arrangements with potential adversaries.”
Regarding Japan’s rising role, Lee said that for Japan to play a greater role in security matters, Japan should “consider how it can come to terms with the past and put to rest these long outstanding historical issues [from World War II].”
Citing on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, Lee warned that war is not an impossible scenario in Asia now, and he urged Asian countries to “strive to deepen cooperation between ourselves, foster mutual trust and work out our differences.”
But for many observers, the U.S.-China rivalry may have passed the point of no return. According to Yuan Zheng, China will be challenged with a more complex security environment in the coming years. “To deal with that, China should continue to take a self-centered approach to increase its economic, diplomatic, military and overall capabilities,” Yuan said.