What Does Biden’s Victory Mean for the Indo-Pacific?
Written by Walter Ladwig
The substance of Joe Biden’s approach to the region and key actors will remain very similar to that of his predecessor, albeit with a different tone and a much greater focus on coordinating with allies.
Joe Biden will inherit a raft of domestic policy challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, a stagnant economy, a significant national debt burden, and the extreme political polarisation in the US. At first glance, this might suggest that foreign policy will be a lesser priority. That being said, as many US presidents come to realise, their freedom of action on the domestic front is often constrained – especially if opposition parties control the House or Senate – but in foreign policy they have significant latitude. Thus, it would not be surprising if Biden gives significant attention to the international stage, particularly since he has spent the better part of the last half-century actively engaged in foreign policy.
Biden’s overall foreign policy priorities are restoring relations with US allies and re-establishing a leading role for the US in world politics. Beyond this, we can expect that protecting democracy and defending human rights will resume a position of importance in US foreign policy. Conversely, democratic backsliding on the part of US partners is unlikely to get a free pass in the same way it has over the past four years. Biden’s overall foreign policy approach will likely mirror the way he has worked for decades in the US Senate – advancing policies gradually and forging partnerships at home and abroad to build consensus and ensure his proposals have an enduring foundation.
Given the competition for attention and resources from other parts of the world, how much attention can the Indo-Pacific expect to receive? There is no denying that Biden is a traditional Atlanticist in orientation. Re-engaging NATO and reconfiguring it for the challenges of the 21st century will clearly be a priority be a priority for his administration as will responding to Russian misbehaviour.
That being said, there is good reason to think that Biden‘s administration will continue to make the Indo-Pacific a significant priority. As vice president, he played a key role in the implementation of Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’. Moreover, despite changes in tone, there has been significant continuity in the US focus on the Indo-Pacific that dates back to at least the George W Bush administration.
Aside from mending the damage the Trump administration is perceived to have done to key bilateral relationships, Biden is not proposing a dramatically different approach to the Indo-Pacific. He will encourage US allies to cooperate on economics, technology, development, governance and security issues which can enhance the regional order and bolster resistance to Chinese coercion. For US treaty allies like Australia, Japan and particularly South Korea, a Biden administration would put bilateral relations on a more solid footing. With countries like Thailand and the Philippines, however, issues of democratic backsliding and human rights concerns could prove harder to navigate.
Under Biden, US Indo-Pacific policy can be expected to reach beyond the defence and security concerns which have been the overwhelming focus of the Trump administration. Questions of governance and regional diplomacy will receive increased focus. More attention will also be given to deepening the proliferation of ‘mini-lateral’ networks of security cooperation like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that allow like-minded states to pool their efforts in the face of common concerns.
That being said, with the US outside both of the region’s nascent free trade agreements – the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Japanese-led negotiations on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – it is unclear how the US can advance an economic architecture for the region that helps countries to solidify their supply chains and reduce their economic dependence on China.
Recognition of this could lead to rekindled interest in joining the CPTPP, which Biden helped initiate back in the Obama administration. Such a development would certainly help shape regional geo-economics, but it would also require significant negotiations to establish levels of labour and environmental standards as well as intellectual property protection that would be acceptable to a Democratic administration.
Attitudes towards China have hardened in the US as Beijing has been clearly identified as a geostrategic competitor and the Biden administration is unlikely to challenge this fundamental premise. Indeed, as a candidate Biden was outspoken on China’s abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, denouncing Xi Jinping as a ‘thug’. There are indications that the new administration will see US–China competition as much broader than just the Trump administration’s focus on trade and coronavirus to include rivalry in the military, diplomatic, technological, and perhaps even ideological domains. This would have implications for the international order writ large.
The Biden administration will seek to leverage a key comparative advantage in the rivalry: the US’s broad portfolio of allies and partners and China’s lack of them. The transactional nature of Trump’s foreign policy impeded his efforts to forge shared positions among partners in the Indo-Pacific, who had cause to question the solidity of US commitments at times.
Biden’s embrace of multilateralism and coordination with allies – rather than engaging in one-on-one confrontations with Beijing – is likely to enhance US effectiveness. When it comes to trade or reducing technological dependence on China – which will continue to be salient – a Biden administration will work with allies in Europe and Asia to bring collective pressure to bear on Beijing to change practices or to pool expertise among partner states who have technological capacities in key sectors. This tough multilateral approach will be reassuring to US partners in the region who generally thought that, tone aside, Trump’s forceful approach to China was the correct posture to adopt.
In adopting the mantle of strategic competition with China, the Biden approach will give significant attention to building up the domestic base of US strength rather than just adopting punitive measures against China. There will also be an attempt to create space for selective bilateral cooperation with Beijing on specific issues like climate or health where necessary. Unlike in the Obama years, however, the US under Biden is unlikely to sidestep contentious issues simply to keep avenues of cooperation open.
Despite the perception that Narendra Modi openly endorsed Donald Trump’s re-election, US–India relations will keep on track under a Biden administration. As a senator and vice president, Biden long championed closer ties between the US and India. Moreover, whether one looks at security cooperation, trade or personal ties, it is clear that the growing strategic partnership has flourished under a variety of governments in both Washington and New Delhi.
That being said, we can expect some important differences in approach. Trade, tariffs and intellectual property protection have always been contentious issues in Indo-US relations. While Trump allowed these issues to dominate other aspects of the relationship, Biden will isolate disagreements on the economic front to prevent them from spilling over to affect diplomatic and strategic engagement. Under Trump, growth in US–India ties has largely focused on defense and security. However, the Biden administration is likely to broaden the range of issues to include governance, the environment and health. Lifting the Trump administration’s freeze on H1-B visas for highly skilled workers is likely to be very well received in Delhi given that 75% of all H1-B visa holders in the US come from India.
Undoubtedly, Biden’s focus on democracy and human rights will mean that the deteriorating state of press freedom in India, the rising violence against minorities that has occurred since Modi came to power and a general perception of an ‘erosion of civil liberties’ in the country will not be ignored. However it is unlikely to derail bilateral ties both because the Indian government is prepared for it – Obama raised such issues when he visited Indian in 2015 – and because the experienced Biden team understands that private discussions are far more effective than publicly hectoring the Indian government.
Differences on trade and human rights are real, and may create a degree of friction. But both governments agree on the growing geostrategic challenge posed by China, which will continue to provide an enduring foundation for a close US–India strategic partnership.
The biggest question hanging over the Biden administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, which has plagued its predecessors, is whether the US will commit the resources necessary to make the region the priority that its political statements and strategy documents purport it to be. As long as the US maintains sizable military commitments in the Middle East and Europe, the pace at which China is modernising its military makes it increasingly challenging for the US to position enough forces in the Indo-Pacific to achieve a military balance, let alone deter Beijing. In an era of high debt levels and shrinking military budgets, will Biden be willing to make difficult trade-offs to prioritise the Indo-Pacific? Only time will tell.