International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The Pacific, The World

20 January 2021

President-elect Joe Biden will look to renew the United States’ Indo-Pacific alliance network under his own terms, but President Trump’s legacy in the region may prove difficult to overcome, Joshua Espeña writes.

While the storming of the United States Capitol shocked the world earlier this month, President-elect Joe Biden remains in place to succeed incumbent President Donald Trump after the United States Congress successfully certified his electoral victory.

Given the chaos of the last four years, setting the house in order will be Biden’s priority, and American foreign policy will be no exception.

It’s widely believed that Biden will reverse the tone of American rhetoric in the world, discarding Trump’s “America first” slogan and replacing it with his own, “America is back”, which was designed to restore the country’s tainted image among its allies.

It will also involve addressing the status of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. As Biden introduces his foreign and security policy team, it is becoming clear that the Indo-Pacific region will remain the epicentre of American foreign policy.

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy has had a mixed impression on many. While some praised it for confronting China, some have criticised it for treating alliances and regional institutions in transactional terms.

The Indo-Pacific concept has been gathering momentum for some years now. In 2007, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe floated the idea of a security ‘diamond’ to align four democracies in the region – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This grouping was also chosen due to their locations on the Indian and Pacific Oceans, regions with a massive impact in the global supply chain and in need of maritime co-operation to safeguard trade.

In 2017, the United States officially began the Quad in a closed-door meeting in Manila. This historic moment occurred at the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit and its related meetings, and the dialogue gathered momentum as China became more assertive in the region.

More on this: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy: a way forward

In 2020, the Quad held two informal meetings and one Quad-plus meeting, along with joint naval exercises in the Philippine Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the signing of a military logistics agreement. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that the Quad may become institutionalised soon, but whether this happens will now depend on Biden’s strategic design for the region.

After his election victory, leaders of AustraliaIndia, and Japan congratulated the 46th president and stressed that they are keen to work with Biden’s team. In turn, he called for a ‘secure and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific. This tagline is said to be received well by Washington’s regional partners, but has caused some concern among those who preferred the rhetoric of the ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific.

Despite the possibility of these small tweaks, the Indo-Pacific is unlikely to undergo serious change after Biden’s inauguration.

Indeed, it will prove a challenging task to get the Quad on the new president’s agenda if he intends to keep promises to confront China on human rights, repair the consequences of the trade war, and address the global challenge of climate change.

Still, in December 2020 the United States released its Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, outlining its intention to build naval power by fostering alliances and partnerships. The incoming administration should build on this momentum.

More on this: What the trade war means for the Indo-Pacific

The United States government also released a declassified Indo-Pacific strategy, just days before Trump was due to leave office. As might be expected, the report echoes the interests of other Quad members in balancing against China’s rise in power.

These documents provide strong indicators that the United States is deeply aligned with its allies and partners’ interests when it comes to China. Biden should certainly note that leaving them hanging would set yet another bad precedent for American leadership in the region.

Without more fervent American support, the other Quad members face limited room to manoeuvre, with China seeking to punish them for aligning with the United States.

Australia is currently on the offensive against Chinese trade sanctions, which many commentators link to its echoing of American criticism of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

India too, is unlikely to moderate relations with China anytime soon, railing against covert Chinese operations in the Himalayan border, though it surely wants to avoid a large-scale border war. Japan, for its part, sees opportunity in moderating ties with China, but ultimately still views its alliance with the United States as “a cornerstone of regional stability.”

Any effort Biden makes in the Quad must be designed to reassure American allies and partners of its regional leadership, rather than a political project to ‘fix’ the legacy of his predecessor. This means he should not downplay the Quad members’ concerns over China.

This will make it very difficult to repair relations with China in the wake of the trade war, but the Biden administration will have to strike a careful balance between style and substance in confronting the Indo-Pacific. No matter what happens, this balancing act will certainly make for an interesting spectacle over the next four years.


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