The Asia Puzzle
America’s Asian partners exude loads of ambivalence on China, says a top analyst in Tokyo.
The election of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States has been applauded throughout Asia. The response reflects exhaustion with Donald Trump—his whims, his drama, and his narcissism. Opinion polls over the next few weeks will likely show a rapid improvement in feelings toward the United States across the region.
The early enthusiasm, however, will wear off quickly, much as it will in Europe, as Josef Joffe has written. Memories can be short, and geopolitical dynamics will soon absorb and undercut whatever sense of relief prevails in Asia today. The Biden team needs to brace for the question, “What have you done for me lately?”
The countries in the region increasingly view China as a revisionist power, eager to reshape the regional status quo and reassume its historical status as Asia’s hegemon. China has territorial disputes in the South China Sea with five other countries—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and it has engaged in an aggressive island-building campaign to assert its claims and project power. Seemingly every day, Chinese vessels set records for the number and duration of encroachments into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are claimed by China (which calls them the Diaoyu) but administered by Japan, whose Foreign Ministry states that Beijing’s actions have “the clear intention of violating the sovereignty of Japan, attempting to change the status quo through force or coercion.” China has also repeatedly clashed with Indian forces in recent months over a disputed border in the Himalayas. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are mounting as well, as Beijing uses military exercises and drills to signal anger with Taipei’s refusal to acknowledge the desirability and inevitability of reunification with the mainland.
Regional governments also worry about China’s disregard for its legal obligations. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague shredded China’s claim to historical rights over territory disputed with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Beijing’s dismissal of that ruling confirmed for many that it believes it is not subject international law. The imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong, one that disregards Chinese obligations to the United Kingdom under the 1984 Joint Declaration signed by the two governments, offers yet more proof.
Yet even as China threatens the security of countries in the region, it remains central to their prosperity. Since 2007, China has been the largest individual trading partner in the region, and the largest trade partner for virtually all the region’s trading nations. It is the only major economy that has turned the corner after the coronavirus pandemic, prompting McKinsey & Company to conclude in a November 2020 analysis that China is “the world’s growth engine after COVID-19.” A Japanese business executive put it more plainly, explaining to the Nikkei, “We cannot talk about a growth strategy without China.”
Beijing is also extending its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the multitrillion-dollar project to fill the even larger multitrillion-dollar gap in infrastructure that exists in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The BRI seeks to recreate the old Silk Road, weaving China more deeply into regional economies. The Trump Administration has responded to Belt and Road by warning of “debt trap diplomacy”—by which China takes control of debtor assets, like ports, because of poorly designed and ultimately unprofitable projects (this concern appears to be largely unfounded)—or by touting public-private partnerships to compete with Chinese offerings. Big words have not been matched by big bucks, however, and “just say no” is not much of a policy, especially in the face of a genuine need for upgraded infrastructure. The Biden Administration will be hard pressed to find the money to invest in regional projects. Asian governments well remember the Obama Administration’s failure to fund its “rebalance” to Asia.
The outsize role that China plays in Asian economies gives it the power to influence, if not also intimidate. Governments are increasingly wary of challenging Beijing, fearful of the price of that opposition. They saw Beijing impose a tourist boycott that cost South Korea billions of dollars in revenue following the Seoul government’s decision, a few years ago, to deploy a theater missile defense system despite China’s objections. The Australian government has also felt the lash in recent weeks. Ever since Canberra backed calls for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, China has tried to change that government’s policy on a range of issues—ranging from Huawei’s ability to join the country’s 5G networks to public support for human rights in Hong Kong. It has done so by imposing tariffs on a growing share of Australian exports (China is Australia’s largest export market). According to one assessment, the tariffs could affect as much as $40 billion in goods and services.
The Balancing Act
The United States—as the reigning superpower, treaty ally, and traditional defender of the regional commons—is supposed to backstop the regional order and prevent predation by aspiring hegemons. But allies have tended to view previous U.S. administrations’ efforts to engage with China with skepticism. They have feared that U.S. commitments to its allies were flagging; that Washington would sacrifice their interests to advance its own; or that Beijing had pulled the wool over the eyes of U.S. decision-makers.
Earlier this year, “Y.A.,” an anonymous Japanese official, extolled the virtues of a confrontational China policy. The analysis was aimed primarily at the Biden foreign policy team—in a way the 2020 equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s admonition to George H.W. Bush not to “go wobbly” during the first Gulf War. (The fact that a Japanese government official, a buttoned-up breed that almost invariably shies away from such exposure, was prepared to make this argument in this format underscores the urgency of the concern.) Y.A., like others in the region, applauded Trump’s hard line, even though the President himself rarely addressed hard security challenges in the South or East China Seas and was quick to threaten to pull U.S. troops from the region if allies weren’t prepared to pay more to keep them there.
Again, as with Joffe’s warning on Europe, Asian strategists will not miss Trump’s nakedly transactional approach to alliances. South Korea will be especially pleased to return to normalcy in negotiations over host nation support; Trump had sought a 500 percent increase in payments by Seoul. Japanese officials, who just began similar talks with U.S. counterparts, will welcome the change, too.
Even sympathetic partners, however, warn that a firm stand with respect to China must not become a destabilizing hard line. Regional governments don’t want Washington to force Beijing to escalate competition into open conflict. Freedom of Navigation operations, which re-assert the superiority of international law over Beijing’s unilateral declarations, are good; provocations are not. But the differences between the two are often in the eye of the beholder. The Biden Administration must navigate between two demands: that it play its role as security ally and partner, protector of the regional commons, and guarantor of the status quo; and that it not antagonize Beijing and jeopardize U.S. allies’ economic prospects.
Walking this tightrope is a relatively new consideration for the United States in Southeast Asia, but it has long grappled with similar demands in policy toward North Korea. South Korea and Japan insist that Washington remain vigilant against threats posed by Pyongyang. At the same time, they constantly fear that the United States will go too far, as appeared to be the case in 2017, when Trump warned of “fire and fury” and called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a rocket man on a suicide mission.” When the North Korean Foreign Minister replied by describing Trump as a “mentally deranged person full of megalomania” who was himself on a “suicide mission,” the world seemed to hold its breath.
The pendulum soon swung, however, and new problems emerged. The backslapping and bonhomie that Trump and Kim shared during and after the Singapore summit pleased the progressive government in Seoul, but the Japanese, along with conservatives in South Korea, were alarmed by the suspension of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. The failure to make progress on a nuclear deal has produced an uneasy stasis, marked by concern that America’s readiness to defend its allies might diminish if the North were to acquire the ability to hit the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons. That fear germinated when Trump professed indifference to Pyongyang’s short- and medium-range missile tests, as long as it maintained its ban on ICBM test launches.
Biden’s North Korea policy is guaranteed to upset someone in the region. He could renounce his predecessor’s overtures to Pyongyang and retreat to a hardline policy or even “strategic patience” (the Obama policy by which the United States froze relations with Pyongyang and waited for North Korea to signal a genuine commitment to disarmament). This, however, would anger Seoul, which seeks to engage the North, and China as well. If Biden appeared to accept a North Korean nuclear arsenal, then Japan, along with South Korea’s conservatives, would feel betrayed. In either case, a dissatisfied Tokyo or Seoul would believe that Washington prefers the other partner, which would aggravate already fraught relations between the two.
A related dilemma concerns the priority that the United States attaches to values in its foreign policy. This is, in a sense, merely another expression of the debate over China policy. Every U.S. administration has wrestled with the appropriate weight to give human rights in foreign policy. Most recently, this debate has crystalized over the meaning of “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a phrase that was first articulated more than a decade ago by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but was adopted by the Trump Administration as its bumper sticker for regional policy.
“Free and open” was intended to be a relatively elastic concept, so that it would be as congenial to as many nations as possible. As the slogan gained currency, a Japanese foreign ministry official once confided that winning widespread acceptance for the concept was more important than taking a hard line, and that Japan was prepared to do whatever it could to avoid antagonizing the concept’s potential adherents. But, no matter the interpretation, a “free and open” region was to rest on pillars that included the rule of law, transparency, and democratic principles. The implication was clear: China was not part of a “free and open” region because it did not embrace those principles.
It was a clever bit of rhetorical legerdemain. After all, Asian governments professed to support those ideas, and institutional charters endorsed them as well. But if some governments were ready to play along, others were not. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the key regional organization that is the cornerstone of virtually all regional architecture, articulated its own “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” which pointedly did not endorse any existing formulation, ensuring that its members would not be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.
That desire to remain above the fray, even when couched in abstract principles, will frustrate any effort by the Biden Administration to inject values into regional foreign policy. Ambivalence will turn to antagonism toward U.S. policy when a regional government finds itself in Washington’s crosshairs: Thailand will object to criticism that its government is antidemocratic, as will Cambodia. The Philippine government will dismiss charges that its war on drugs violates human rights, as Myanmar will do when others accuse it of violating the rights of its Rohingya minority.
Some regional human rights activists fear that a Biden Administration will retreat on these issues. They credited Trump for his willingness to be an unconventional leader, ready to dispense with polite talk and diplomatic convention and call out human rights violators. It’s an odd position, given Trump’s readiness to deal with any leader if he thought he could secure some sort of agreement that he could tout as “winning.” This group of human rights advocates believes that Biden’s promised return to “normalcy” will hurt their cause. Some of this suspicion is the product of misinformation campaigns painting Biden as the puppet of socialist supporters.
In theory, these dilemmas can be resolved with a consultative policymaking process that ensures that decisions are multilateral or, if not, that they are implemented in ways that help others save face. Reasonable as it sounds, that suggestion triggers grumbling that consultations will reduce regional governments’ diplomatic space: They will not be able to disavow painful policies if they were included in the decision-making process. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Science and International Security at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, makes a slightly different case, arguing that Southeast Asian governments gained considerable room for diplomatic maneuver from the Trump Administration’s forward-leaning posture and policy. They worry that a more modulated U.S. position will reduce that space and restrict their options.
Consultation may prove more difficult than it seems, since there aren’t regional mechanisms for such talks. U.S. alliances in Asia operate on a hub-and-spoke model, with the United States at the center. While the “spokes” are strengthening ties among themselves, there isn’t a single forum to coordinate regional policy on these issues—at least there isn’t one that doesn’t afford China or its regional proxies a veto.
Wanting It Both Ways
There is a final dilemma for which consultation offers no easy solutions. Asian governments, and especially Asian allies, are keenly aware of U.S. commitments elsewhere in the world, and they study them intensely for signs of how Washington will behave when it is challenged. The most striking example in recent history is the Obama Administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria in 2013, when dictator Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people. Senior Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan spoke for many in the region when he said, “When Obama drew but failed to enforce a red line over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the credibility of American power everywhere was undermined.”
The argument makes sense, but it obscures a more important point. U.S. intervention in Syria, when troops were already on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, would have further sapped U.S. capacity to honor its defense commitments to Asia. Had Obama stepped in, those same governments would have complained that the United States was not committed to “rebalancing” to the Asia Pacific, the fastest growing region in the world. Setting and honoring priorities is the essence of good strategy, but regional governments tend to see such prudence as proof that their own interests are expendable.
That the United States has been overextended for two decades, and that it is determined to devote more attention and resources to building at home, has reinforced uncertainty and insecurity. Asia’s America-watchers know that Donald Trump was both symptom and cause of that problem, and they also note that he won nearly 74 million votes in a deeply divided country. In other words, the pressures animating his “America First” politics remain. Asian countries will worry that Washington may not be there if competition intensifies or a fight breaks out, no matter the Biden Administration’s intentions.
The Biden Administration will rightly argue that it can walk and chew gum at the same time, doing both foreign and domestic policy simultaneously. Indeed, to do either properly requires a bit of the other, as well as strategy, resources, and discipline. The first has never been a problem: For at least two decades, U.S. foreign policy and national security decision-makers have understood the vital importance of the Asia-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific, region to the national interest. But those plans have usually lacked both follow-through and sufficient resources—usually as a result of distractions elsewhere in the world.
Asian officials and experts insist that the world is changing and that U.S. policy must adapt to that transformation. The best way to ensure the evolution in both form and content is for governments in Asia to work with the Biden Administration to restructure relationships and rebalance a long-standing division of labor. It will be a laborious and often frustrating process. Unlike Europe, there is no single framework for those conversations; Washington will be forced to engage allies and partners one by one. There will be incessant sniping from critics at home and abroad. Beijing will try to impede the modernization of mechanisms designed to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon.
This would be a daunting task in the best of times, but now it must be done even as geopolitics are being transformed. Think of it as trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together while all the pieces are changing size, shape, and color at the same time. Fortunately, the Biden Administration will have the support of most Asian governments, so it should move quickly, before those early hopes and expectations fade, along with the memory of the last four years.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo, as well as non-resident senior advisor at Pacific Forum. He is author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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