On Jan. 24, 2023, Pacific Forum hosted a Comparative Connections Roundtable that discussed the future of the Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific policy. Expert panelists shared their insights and predictions for the second half of the president’s term. The session was moderated by Mr. Brad Glosserman (Tama University), and featured Catharin Dalpino (Georgetown University), Mason Richey (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies), and Rob York (Pacific Forum). The following are the key findings from the session.
US Foreign Policy Dominated by Crises & Overshadowed by Internal Politics
The Biden administration’s foreign policy up to this point has been dominated by crises and reactions to those crises, from pandemic recovery and supply chain tumult, to the war in Europe and provocations in the Taiwan Strait. As a result, there has been little room for proactive strategy to shine through, conveying a foreign policy agenda lacking coherence and a sense of global vision. In contrast to his predecessor, President Biden speaks out on behalf of human rights, but actions often fall short of the rhetoric, as America’s soft stances towards Turkey and Saudi Arabia following their flagrant abuses deteriorate the values-based diplomacy that the US prides itself on.
Failure to reenter the JCPOA “Iran nuclear deal,” and a haphazardly-executed exit plan from Afghanistan are standout blemishes on Biden’s first term thus far –though the extrication of US personnel from the region so that it can redirect its efforts to newer priorities, should be recognized as a strategic win. Responding to Vladimir Putin’s war in Europe, the administration’s ability to galvanize tremendous support for Ukraine with supplies and against Russia with sanctions was praiseworthy. This united front reinvigorated relationships among the world’s leading liberal democracies within Europe, but also Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the recent US midterm elections, Republicans captured a narrow House majority and lost one seat in the Senate –a surprisingly positive outcome for Democrats, considering the administration’s foreign policy woes, heightened levels of inflation, and concerns about Biden’s age and re-electability. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, securing his victory after fifteen rounds of voting, wants to establish a new committee on China, reflecting the degree of bipartisan concern over strategic competition. As the 2024 election cycle draws near, will US politicians prioritize united American action on the world stage, or resort to partisan brawling? Expect noise from a field of possible Republican challengers, including former President Trump, former Vice President Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley–as Biden works hard to convince domestic and international audiences that he is not a spent force.
US Security Engagement at the Forefront in Northeast Asia but Economic Statecraft Lackluster
The PLA’s increasing volume of incursions in the Taiwan Strait has been met with shows of US commitment, including stepped-up naval deterrents, “Taiwan contingency planning” from Korea-stationed US troops, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s defiant trip to Taipei. The island nation has been a bright spot in a region backsliding towards authoritarianism. Expect US lawmakers looking to shore up domestic support continue to argue Taiwan’s importance for liberal democracy worldwide.
The Biden administration also harnessed the momentum in threat perception to advance trilateral security relations with Japan and South Korea –with Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon’s agreeableness allowing the two nations to potentially turn a corner on their historical antagonism. Despite North Korea’s record levels of ballistic test activity last year, the regime has dropped lower on the US list of concerns –contributing to Seoul’s anxieties, and stoking a push for peninsular nuclear rearmament as a response.
US commitment to security and sovereignty in East Asia has been in focus, but economic strategy and trade engagement in the Indo-Pacific has been far less promising. The American turn inwards towards protectionism is unlikely to change soon, a trajectory started under Trump and continued under Biden –thinly veiled by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan as “foreign policy for the middle class.” The Inflation Reduction Act’s requisites on reshoring manufacturing and supply chains angered South Korea, who has significant investments at stake. Biden’s flagship regional initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) sits short of its full potential. Grounded on executive order rather than congressionally approved law, it is vulnerable to being scrapped by a Republican president in 2024.
US Strengthening Ties in Maritime Southeast Asia but Losing Ground with Mainland States
Overall, Southeast Asia lacks sufficient attention from the Biden administration but threat perception has increased willingness for cooperation, particularly over maritime security in the South China Sea. The island of Formosa (Taiwan) was used in the past as a springboard for launching invasions into Southeast Asia, so others in the region are becoming more keenly attuned to China’s positioning . The US-Philippines relationship under Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has seen reinvigoration but this may be more a function of Duterte’s departure rather than Biden’s efforts. A security nexus is developing around Bongbong’s Philippines and Kishida’s Japan, who have granted greater basing rights to the US military.
There have been few bright spots for Biden’s relationships with the mainland states. Human rights backsliding in Vietnam and Thailand is concerning, while the international community has little appetite for intervention in the tragic civil war in Myanmar. One upcoming election to watch this summer will be Cambodia’s, whose longtime leader, Hun Sen, may consider passing the mantle to his son, Hun Manet, which could provide an opening to reset foreign relations. Future opportunities for partnerships in the region lie in energy transition. Indonesia and Vietnam are seeking green energy financing through giant initiatives led by the Asian Development Bank, and the G7, respectively. As the largely coal-powered region looks to introduce cleaner energy sources, nuclear power is gaining steam as a solution, potentially opening another arena for strategic competition to nuclear technology leaders like Russia, the US, and to a lesser extent, China. The Mekong partnership is the United States’ only institutional engagement with the mainland Southeast Asian states, but is an underutilized channel well worth expanding.