Biden’s Toggle to Asia
A look ahead at Biden’s China strategy release and upcoming trip to Asia
As the month of April draws to a close, the war in Ukraine still commands the headlines and much of the nation’s attention.
But May 2022 is shaping up as “Asia” policy month for U.S. foreign policy, with a strong emphasis on China.
The White House announced this week that President Biden will travel to Korea and Japan May 20-24, a week after he hosts a special summit in Washington with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization of 10 countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam that seeks to coordinate policy on economic and security issues.
Also in the pipeline is a new China strategy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week he will soon have a chance to talk about that strategy that the Biden administration has been working on for more than a year.
In the first four months of 2022, Russia’s war against Ukraine has dominated the time and attention of the United States. The Biden administration just sent a $33 billion request to Congress to help Ukraine boost its military and defend itself against Russia’s assault, the largest single funding package of the war.
The current global reality has prompted national security multitasking in the extreme. Gone are the notions of a “pivot” or “rebalance” of focus from one region of the world to another discussed a decade or so ago.
What’s replacing it is something that could be best described as a “toggle,” like when you press a button on your computer to switch between two different applications that can run at the same time without minimizing windows, like when you press the "Alt" and "Tab" keys at the same time.
It’s good the Biden team is doing this toggle now. The experience of the past decade shows that America’s more secure when it is working to advance a more proactive approach to multiple regions of the world. But executing a successful toggle without crashing the whole computer of U.S. foreign policy comes with a few challenges at this tumultuous time of global transformation.
Three Challenges in the Toggle to Asia
1. Outlining a coherent economic and technological component to U.S. national security policy. The Biden administration has taken some important steps on the defense and security front to reassure security partners in Asia with a steadier and more consistent approach than was witnessed during the Trump years, when America was led by a president who relished catching adversaries and partners off guard with unexpected moves and statements. But as Demetri Sevastopulo recently noted in the Financial Times, a big gap exists on the trade and economic policy front, one that needs to be filled if America wants to make sure that its partners in Asia and other parts of the world don’t become too reliant on China.
A major reason for this gap is connected to America’s own internal challenges in ironing out a global agenda that builds domestic support and navigates tricky politics at home. Since the 2016 failure to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large, proposed trade bloc that would have linked America together with some key countries in Asia and the Americas, the United States has lacked a big idea on this front.
Despite some talk about a “foreign policy for the middle class,” the Biden team has fallen short in outlining a policy approach that links domestic economic renewal efforts with a global approach that benefits America’s workers.
The Biden administration reportedly plans to fill this gap in its Asia policy with something it is calling the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a plan on clean energy, infrastructure and supply chain that also has a strong component on digital trade. But the terms of this idea remain unclear, and one sticking point reportedly is how much market access, if any at all, the United States would give to Asian nations.
In the new geopolitical order, the digital and technological realm is a key component, too – just look at the competition and tensions over 5G across the world. There are several good proposals on how America can compete with China’s industrial policies in this arena, but the Biden team hasn’t yet woven the strands of this crucial component together.
2. Bringing other countries along with America’s approach. A second challenge in this Asia policy toggle is making sure that the United States coordinates effectively with other parts of the world. Unlike Russia, which is a declining power with a very small economy, China has a global reach, particularly through its commercial and trade ties, and America is competing with China not just in Asia but other parts of the world.
Remember the “AUKUS ruckus” of last year? That’s when the Biden administration ruffled the feathers of France by catching it off guard in announcing a new trilateral security agreement with Australia and Great Britain that France saw as undercutting its own policy. It smoothed things with France eventually, but the United States needs to bring other countries along, including those outside of China’s immediate neighborhood, when it announces new initiatives.
Given the breadth and depth of the reach that both America and China have around the world, an important component of this competition is who coordinates most effectively in the diplomatic realm with a wide range of partners in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere.
3. Managing the bandwidth problem inside of the U.S. government. A third challenge is a practical one that is often underappreciated – the simple fact that the United States government faces practical constraints in its own capacities to manage and implement policies on multiple fronts at the same time. Just take a look at the faces of senior U.S. government officials working on foreign policy in any given administration: they usually look very, very tired. That’s because they are doing too much without enough people and, importantly, without effective strategies for managing the interagency process.
But there’s a way to address these practical policy management challenges more effectively without cutting corners or simply giving up and staying home as some propose. One thing that would be good to do is work to create more bipartisan unity – foreign policy sectarianism undercuts America’s ability to compete in the world and China seeks to exploit America’s internal divisions.
But another key part involves looking at the opportunities and advantages.
Three Opportunities in America’s Toggle to Asia
1. China is facing some major challenges of its own. All of the talk about China’s growing power around the world ignores its major and acute internal problems. Take a look at the discontent on open display in Shanghai right now with the communist government’s zero COVID approach. That’s just the latest in a string of challenges including major real estate bubbles and endemic corruption that threaten to undermine the entire Chinese domestic political economy.
2. America has a rare bipartisan opening to invest in its ability to compete with China. Despite America’s sharply divided politics today, Democrats and Republicans have come together to propose several measures that would invest in America’s own capacity to compete with China. There are several good ideas on this front.
This week, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), released the Economic Statecraft for the Twenty-First Century Act, a proposal that would boost America’s capacities to deal with China’s impact on supply chains, artificial intelligence, global infrastructure, and broader issues related to China’s assertive global economic strategy. This legislation comes just as the Senate and House are aiming to sort out differences over various plans all aimed at boosting America’s ability to compete with China.
The Biden administration has an interest in seeing some elements of these legislative proposals move forward before the midterm elections when Democrats might lose control in Congress – that’s why the Biden team should work with Congress to achieve positive outcomes on this front, and the best pathway is most likely a bipartisan one, just like last year’s major infrastructure bill.
3. China has tethered itself to Russia’s sinking ship. Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine has put China in an awkward and tricky position – the war is certainly not the play China’s leader Xi Jinping would have called at the start of 2022. It’s awkward because for all of China’s tough talk about “national sovereignty,” the need to respect countries’ borders, and not meddle in their internal affairs, the Ukraine war shows just how empty that rhetoric has been from communist China. It’s tricky because China is feeling some heat from its close alignment with an erratic Putin who has unified key parts of Europe and America with his reckless war in Ukraine. China’s attempted global march is knocked off balance by the Ukraine war.
China has pulled back some on its oil purchases from Russia, but at the same time it has upped its Russian coal imports. These tactical energy policy shifts are mirrored by a zigzagging and less certain approach to the world by China’s communist leaders. As Hal Brands recently noted, there is some peril linked to China’s possible decline: its leaders might take more risks in the world.
Add China’s domestic dynamics to a new geopolitical landscape, and if the Biden team executes this foreign policy toggle correctly, it could end up undercutting both Russia and China in the broader landscape of great power competition.
In sum, May 2022 could be a pivotal month geopolitically, and the Biden administration is smart to shift its focus a bit more to Asia in the coming weeks. In making this move, it should remember the other definition of “toggle.”
A toggle is not only a key on your computer that allows you to shift applications – another definition of the word is a small bar that is used to fasten something through a loop or a hole, to hold things together like two sides of a shirt or jacket. In a sense, what the Biden administration will unveil and do in Asia in the next few weeks is not just a partial shift from the Ukraine screen, but also an attempt to fasten America more closely to partners in Asia – and other parts of the world.