Ralph A. Cossa
Ralph A. Cossa is former president and Worldwide Support for Development-Handa Chair at the Pacific Forum. He is a lifelong contributor to Comparative Connections and coauthors the regional overview chapter. Cossa is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Experts and Eminent Persons Group. He is a founding member of the multinational track two Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). He co-chairs the CSCAP study group aimed at halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Asia Pacific region and is the executive director of the US CSCAP Member Committee (USCSCAP). He serves on the Board of the Council on US-Korean Security Studies and the National Committee on US-China Relations (NY). He is a frequent contributor to regional newspapers, including the Japan Times, Korea Times, and International Herald Tribune. His publications include The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region: Security Strategy for the Obama Administration (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2009); “US-Japan Relations: What Should Washington Do?” in America’s Role in Asia: Recommendations for US Policy from Both Sides of the Pacific (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2008); and An East Asian Community and the United States, Ralph A. Cossa and Akihiko Tanaka, eds., (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2007).
Articles by Ralph A. Cossa
While the Biden administration has yet to produce its own definitional strategy documents—the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Policy Review, or Indo-Pacific Strategy Report—details are emerging that strongly suggest each will be generally consistent with the previous administration’s reports, but with an even heavier stress on alliances and multilateralism. Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided the most detailed description of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy during his swing through Southeast Asia in December, reaffirming the “cooperate, compete, confront” approach toward China that, with varying degrees of emphasis and intensity, has been consistent for at least the last three administrations. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put some meat on the bones of his “integrated deterrence” concept, underscored by the first in-person (despite COVID) summit meeting of the four Quad heads of state from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States and the emergence of AUKUS, a technology-oriented defense arrangement involving Canberra, London, and Washington.
President Biden (virtually) attended the ASEAN-driven East Asia Summit and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting while focusing much of his attention on the broader-based Summit for Democracy. While the administration talked in general terms about its Asian economic strategy, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) continued apace, sans Washington, with Beijing knocking on the former’s door and standing to be a prime beneficiary (along with Japan) of the latter. Overshadowing all of this is omicron, the latest and seemingly most contagious and pervasive COVID strain, reminding us all that the pandemic is far from over.
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy as it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.
ROUNDTABLEJune 14, 2021
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.
The last trimester of the year saw its usual flurry of (albeit virtual) multilateral summitry, with most coming after the US election. While outgoing US President Donald Trump did “attend” the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting (for the first time since 2017), he was, as usual, a no-show at the ASEAN-chaired gatherings, with the US being represented at the US-ASEAN Summit and at the more important (at least to the other participants) East Asia Summit, for the second straight year, by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did attend, in person, the Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo in October, with the four navies meeting later in the year for their first four-way exercise in India. Pompeo also attended (virtually) the US-ASEAN Ministerial but left the participation in the broader-based ASEAN Regional Forum to Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun.
As the region (and world) focus on the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic, the “cold peace” between Washington and Beijing continued to heat up, with implications throughout and beyond the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. US pronouncements during the last four months should dispel any doubt that the US Asia strategy is aimed first and foremost at China, and more specifically at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While critics of the Trump administration’s unilateralist approach continue to argue that “America First means America Alone,” this does not appear to be the case where China is concerned. Not only does the much-maligned (including by us) “Quad”—the loose grouping of the US, Australia, India, and Japan—show signs of coordinated backbone, it seems to be forming the basis for a new “Quad-Plus” that includes other “like-minded states.” The Quad’s focus on the promotion of the rule of law and freedom of navigation has Beijing’s attention, as does Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comment that “(M)aybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations … a new alliance of democracies.”
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hammer regional economies and the recovery, if and when it occurs, is likely to be long and uneven. It looks like there may be a new model that describes its impact, and it doesn’t augur well for those countries. Finally, we offer some framing thoughts for a potential Biden foreign policy as the US presidential campaign enters the homestretch.
This trimester’s regional overview focuses on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on regional security affairs. But as the other chapters attest, international focus on the pandemic should not cause us to overlook other significant events that transpired during this reporting period: increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and vis-a-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan, growing China-Australia tensions, the non-summit between President Trump and the leaders of ASEAN, South Korean elections (with an outcome closely tied to its handling of the pandemic, but with far-reaching implications in other areas), and the dispute over host nation support, which has raised questions about the vitality (indeed, even the survivability) of the ROK-US alliance, to cite just a few. Meanwhile, the (somewhat) unusual but not unprecedented disappearance of Kim Jong Un from the public eye raised questions about how prepared the US (among others) is for dealing with a sudden leadership change on the peninsula.
The final trimester of the year is usually a time for Asian multilateralism to take center stage; this year, not so much. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting, which was supposed to take place in Chile, was cancelled (due to civil disturbances in the host country) while the East Asia Summit (EAS) proceeded without either US President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence (his normal stand-in) in attendance. Regional economic developments (and US trade actions impacting the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region) grabbed the headlines instead. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) participants gathered along the EAS sidelines to finalize their trade agreement, sans India, which balked at the last minute. Meanwhile, the White House and US House of Representatives, while locked in a battle over impeachment, nonetheless reached common ground on the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) while the administration announced a “phase one” trade deal with Beijing. There appears to be less than meets the eye in both agreements, but each impacts the region writ large. Finally, not to be overshadowed, the State Department issued its own explanation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, complementing the Pentagon’s version, which was analyzed in our last issue.
For the past two years, US officials have made reference to a new Indo-Pacific Strategy. The June 1 release of the Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report provides some clarification and contains many familiar themes, including the need for a credible forward presence and strengthened alliances and partnerships “to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific where sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are safeguarded.” The Report further notes “the critical linkages between economics, governance, and security.” Not to be outdone, ASEAN introduced its own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with “inclusivity” as the central theme. The G20 meeting in Osaka was probably as successful as was possible, but the group offered little more than rhetorical support for efforts to quell the US-China trade war. Finally, the Japan, South Korea, China trilateral provided some reason for hope –but just a little.
We are focusing on regional trade and economics because it’s important to look at the consequences of the current US administration’s antipathy toward multilateral trade agreements. Beijing has shown no such hesitancy, with President Xi Jinping hosting visitors from more than 100 different countries (including 37 heads of state) at his Second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) International Forum. Ships from 19 different navies (but not the US or France) participated in a naval flotilla commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). One area where Washington might actually embrace a multilateral agreement would be a follow-on to the soon-to-be defunct Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty but only if it involves, among others, China.