Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine
At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest president in US history to assume office. The unprecedented security at his inauguration, which included neutralising any possible insider threat from National Guardsmen and police officers at the ceremony, underscored the new president’s challenges. Biden has come to power with about one-third of the American voters believing he stole the election, with the US Congress almost evenly divided between the two parties, and with America reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus.
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub— the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
The increasingly polarised and virulent US politics, however, will likely weigh down Biden’s agenda. Before the election, according to one survey, nearly 90 per cent of supporters of Biden and his rival Donald Trump believed that the opponent’s victory would bring lasting harm to America.
Indeed, Trump left office refusing to concede the election. He repeatedly alleged that the election was marred by fraud and irregularities and thus illegitimate. To be sure, Trump’s 2016 election victory was never accepted by many prominent Democrats, who sought to delegitimise his presidency by spinning a tale of his “collusion” with Russia. A partisan national media served as an echo chamber for the Russia-collusion story. Today, the base of the Republican Party reveres Trump even in defeat.
Biden has talked about unifying a divided America. But he has taken little concrete action thus far in that direction.
It will not be easy to heal the wounds after the recent developments, including the Trump-supporting mob’s storming of the US Capitol, the rushed second impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives after just a four-hour debate, and Big Tech’s open display of its political leanings by targeting Trump and his supporters and by shutting down Twitter’s rapidly growing rival, Parler. After being kicked off US servers, Parler has been forced to turn to a Russian firm that routes internet traffic.
As William Barr, who served as the US attorney general until December 2020, has warned, “I think that when you start suppressing free speech, when people lose confidence in the media, and also when they lose faith in the integrity of elections, you’re going to have some people resort to violence.” Anger has deepened among conservatives, especially among many of the 74 million who voted for Trump and whose belief in a stolen election is now etched in their psyches.
The US is being torn apart by hyper-partisan politics. Tolerance for opposing views is increasingly in short supply. In this environment, fake news, conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and alternative narratives thrive. What keeps the US strong, though, is institutional resilience. Hardened polarisation hasn’t really dented national institutions, which remain by and large effective in helping to insulate the country’s economy and security from the effects of partisan politics.
Yet, there is a high risk that, like his predecessor, Biden in office could become an increasingly polarising figure, with Americans either loving or loathing him. Trump’s supporters already hate Biden. In fact, just as Democrats spent four years seeking to tar Trump with a Russia-collusion story, hardcore conservatives are already calling Biden the “Manchurian candidate” who, to quote the prominent right-wing commentator Mark Levin, was “bought and paid for by China.”
To compound matters, the new president’s decades-long political career shows that he has no firm convictions. Indeed, during the presidential election campaign, Biden made a habit of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania was to Trump as president.
FOREIGN POLICY UNDER BIDEN
Biden says he intends to reshape US foreign policy, including by shoring up alliances and by rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. But the “one America, two nations” problem at home could impinge on Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, as it did on Trump’s.
Trump pursued a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and unexpected resort to force, as in early 2020 when the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s commando Quds Force. Trump’s critics rejoiced over Soleimani’s killing because they had been slamming his foreign-policy approach of relying largely on economic levers by rebuffing the preference of the US “deep state” for periodically employing military force to assert American power.
Trump, who railed against “endless wars,” was the first US president since Jimmy Carter not to start a new war. Trump ended the CIA’s large covert operation in Syria and worked to bring back home US troops from various theatres of conflict. But his itch to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan led him to cut a deal with the terrorist Taliban, handing Pakistan a major victory. Consequently, the old US-Pakistan-Taliban alliance is back in play in Afghanistan, with Washington’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban spawning an escalating wave of targeted killings.
Against this background, how will Biden’s foreign policy be different? Biden has promised to pursue a more predictable and multilateral approach and to help unite allies in concerted action on issues ranging from climate change to Russia and China.
But few seem to clearly know Biden’s thinking on major geostrategic issues.
In the presidential campaign, Biden’s theme essentially was that he wasn’t Trump. Biden made the election a referendum on the incumbent rather than a choice. Yet, without having a political base or articulating a clear vision, Biden won. In victory, the Democrats are trying to figure out what they stand for as a party. But the division between progressives and establishment forces runs deep in the party.
One thing seems certain: Despite Biden’s multilateralism rhetoric, he is likely to be more interventionist than Trump. In fact, most members of Biden’s national security team are considered “liberal interventionists,” or hawks on the left. It was the liberal interventionists who, under President Barack Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Biden’s protégé and now Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, both of which turned the once-stable countries into failed states. Blinken hailed America’s occupation of Iraq as a success, claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. As his critics point out, there isn’t a war that Blinken hasn’t loved.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, supported supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and President Trump finally delivered.
On China, however, the otherwise hawkish Sullivan has been an advocate of a conciliatory approach. For example, during a 2017 lecture he delivered on behalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sullivan said foreign policy expert Owen Harries was “right” to warn that “containment” is a self-defeating policy, much like acquiescence. “We need to strike a middle course—one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order,” Sullivan declared. He said the China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, “it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive sum Chinese rise.”
More recently, Sullivan co-authored an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (September/October 2019) with Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator”—a new position inside the National Security Council. The essay argued for managed coexistence with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential US partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay pushed for managed coexistence in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes—one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to it, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” But the key, it said, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
In essence, the essay implicitly sought a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements, with the rest of the world having to adjust to it. By suggesting China’s challenge and threat could no longer be addressed by the US alone, the essay, in addition to advocating the strengthening of US alliances, said that a US partnership with Beijing was indispensable.
The essay actually stood out for failing to look ahead. It listed four hot spots in the Indo-Pacific region but not the Himalayas, now the most dangerous flashpoint. In fact, it made no mention of India or the Quad or America’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy or economic decoupling. If anything, the essay reflected the Kissingerian thinking still prevailing in some US policy circles.
A former Chinese vice foreign minister’s call in a November 2020 New York Times op-ed for “cooperative competition” between the US and China sounded a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea proposed by Campbell and Sullivan in their essay, with both concepts implying a G2-style condominium. The ex-vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, wrote in her op-ed: “It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The Trump administration defined the relationship with Beijing as pitting the US in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If Biden pursued US cooperation with China, it would help strengthen the CCP internally and externally.
Managed coexistence would allow China to manage the bilateral relationship largely on its terms, including protecting the CCP’s primacy. When Fu called for “addressing each other’s concerns” to build cooperative competition, she meant, as she herself put it, that the “United States should be respectful of China’s sense of national unity and avoid challenging China on the issue of Taiwan or by meddling in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.” Addressing each other’s concerns also implies that the US must respect the fact, as Fu said, that China has a “different political system.” China cannot, and will not, change because, without ultra-nationalism as the CCP’s legitimating credo and without the Xi Jinping regime’s aggressive expansionism, the country’s political system would unravel.
Biden is unlike the four most recent US presidents: He has deep ties to the Washington establishment, including the lobbying industry, from his 44 years in the Senate and as vice president. No sooner had the media declared him the election winner than he named at least 40 current and former registered lobbyists to his transition team.
Biden, backed by Big Money, Big Tech and Big Media, was Wall Street’s favoured candidate in the election. But, thanks to US corporate greed, Wall Street also remains China’s powerful ally.
Furthermore, the national security team Biden has chosen isn’t free of the Cold War thinking that sees Russia as the main foe. Such thinking plays into China’s hands. Russia and China, as geographically proximate nations, have always been suspicious of each other’s intentions as they compete for geopolitical influence. But US policy, including sanctions against Russia, have brought two natural strategic competitors into ever-closer alignment.
More fundamentally, an interventionist foreign policy under Biden on issues other than China will raise concerns over the renewed influence of the so-called US deep state, which is centred in security and intelligence agencies. Many Republicans believed the deep state worked hard to topple Trump from power. Former Attorney General Barr publicly identified one such rogue actor—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A “wilful if small” group at the FBI used the Russia-collusion claim to try and “topple an administration,” Barr said in an interview in December.
A NEW INDO-PACIFIC POLICY
The imperative in the Indo-Pacific is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded countries linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016 and subsequently became the basis of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy after Trump was elected president.
Biden has yet to clearly spell out his administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. There are signs, though, that Biden may replace the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy with a new policy. The Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy he adopts will be among his most-consequential foreign policy decisions. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will have an important bearing on Indian (and Asian) security.
On China, Biden has shown a striking lack of strategic clarity thus far. After he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The strong blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
In stark contrast, Trump repeatedly pledged during his successful presidential campaign in 2016 to fundamentally change the relationship with China. After assuming office, Trump quickly abandoned the approach of his predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Obama, that aided the rise of China, including as a trade leviathan. Jettisoning his predecessors’ policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, Trump classified China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary.
Trump’s standing up to China explains why, unlike in Europe or the US, he has been popular in large parts of the Indo-Pacific, including in places as diverse as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and South Korea. According to one analyst, many Asians “saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against [Chinese] communist tyranny.” Even within China, Trump was admired by those concerned about President Xi Jinping’s increasingly arbitrary and despotic rule.
However, by the time Trump came to office and engineered a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, China had already emerged as his country’s most formidable competitor and as a potent threat to its Asian neighbours.
Assisting China’s rise was the “greatest” mistake of US foreign policy since the 1930s, according to Robert O’Brien, the last National Security Advisor under Trump. How did this blunder occur? “We closed our ears and our eyes. We believed what we wanted to believe,” O’Brien candidly said last year.
That blunder “created a monster,” as Trump admitted in 2019—a monster that will continue to haunt not only the US but also its allies and partners. Indeed, Asian countries, from Japan to India, are bearing the brunt of China’s rise as an expansionist power that openly flouts international norms.
When Biden assumed office, the US was locked in a trade war, a technology war and a geopolitical war with China, with the strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies beginning to reshape global geopolitics. In fact, by defining the CCP as the main threat to international peace and security and to the Chinese people’s well-being, the Trump administration signalled its support for regime change in Beijing.
Of all the actions of the Trump administration, the one that stung Beijing the most was the unremitting US offensive against China as a predatory state controlled by the CCP without any political legitimacy or rule of law. This ideological onslaught implied that regime change was essential for China to abide by international norms and rules. The paradox is that Xi himself, as the New York Times reported, “sees China and the United States as locked in ideological rivalry. Since coming to power in 2012, he has called for Chinese schools, textbooks and websites to inoculate youth against Western values that could erode party rule and the country’s ‘cultural self-confidence.’”
Meanwhile, US sanctions in the past year against CCP officials involved in the Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other crackdowns or in the South China Sea aggression have complicated Xi’s task of holding his flock together. US sanctions and visa restrictions against CCP cadres and their family members threaten to create internal disarray in the party by jeopardising important members’ interests, including their ability to keep money overseas and send their children to study in the West.
However, just when the Trump administration was on the cusp of forging an international democratic coalition against China, threatening the survival of Xi’s regime, Trump lost the election. The election loss set in motion tumultuous and riotous developments in Washington that could undermine Trump’s legacy.
UNCERTAIN DIRECTION UNDER BIDEN
Will Biden radically shift the Trump administration policy and treat China as a major competitor but not an implacable enemy, while also abandoning economic decoupling? Such a climbdown would mean a significant dilution of the US strategy to contain China, including reining in the relentless expansionism it pursues without regard to the diplomatic or geopolitical fallout.
Some close to the new US administration have fallaciously argued that China’s significant geopolitical and economic clout cannot be rolled back and that the country is far too integrated in the global economy for economic decoupling to be successful. In fact, some key members of Biden’s team believe that, instead of the US treating China as its primary adversary, Washington and Beijing should aim for shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
How will seeking shared leadership justify the united democratic front on China that Biden wishes to build? Can the US build a democratic coalition with the aim, not to contain China, but to employ major democracies’ aggregate geopolitical and economic heft to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing?
It is critical issues like these that have injected a layer of uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific landscape following the leadership change in the White House. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy will undergo structural shifts.
It is significant that, since Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November, China has displayed a distinctly cocky tone in its official statements. It has also put its propaganda machinery in overdrive. What explains this? The Chinese communist publication Global Times has offered an answer: “Biden is likely to abandon or at least adjust” Trump’s “so-called Indo-Pacific strategy” and “fix ties with China.”
Xi’s regime, which presides over the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, clearly saw Biden’s election win as a silver lining for China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reposing China’s hope in Biden, said early this year that “a new window of hope is opening” and that the bilateral relationship with the US could now get back on the right track following a period of “unprecedented difficulty.”
The pressure that the Trump administration ramped up on China has exacted a heavy toll on Beijing, denting its international image. Negative views of China reached historic highs in 2020.
Until Biden’s election victory became clear, Beijing had sought to absorb the Trump administration’s unceasing attacks by essentially ducking them. It sought the moral high ground by decrying Washington’s return to the “zero-sum thinking of the Cold War era” and by claiming that it did not want to play into America’s hands by responding in kind (as if it could). In essence, China’s then posture implicitly conveyed that it could do little to deter the Trump administration’s attacks and thus was putting up with them without seeking to provoke greater US punitive actions.
But once a Biden win became apparent, Beijing began aggressively lambasting the Trump administration’s actions as extreme and crazy. More significantly, it started saying that, once the Biden administration took office, the US and China must come to terms with each other by opening dialogue. Seeking such a modus vivendi was also embedded in Xi’s belated congratulatory letter to Biden.
The Trump administration’s approach towards China, meanwhile, continues to be mischaracterised by many in the West as a “got-it-alone” approach. The truth is that the Trump administration ramped up pressure on China by resurrecting the Quad and giving it concrete shape. Trump may have weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance but, in the Indo-Pacific, his administration built the Quad into a promising coalition and upgraded security ties with key partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Thailand. It also established new US defence cooperation with Vietnam and the Maldives.
Biden wants to build a coalition of democracies to exert pressure on China. But this is exactly what the Trump administration sought to do. The Quad is an alliance of leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific. The Trump administration committed to establishing a concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of an Indo-Pacific balance of power. This led even distant powers like France, Germany and Britain to view a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security and to unveil their own Indo-Pacific policies.
Important democracies today are looking to Biden to provide strategic clarity on his approach to the Indo-Pacific. Holding a large Summit for Democracy, as he plans to do to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world,” can scarcely offer such clarity. The summit would represent a values-based, globalised approach standing in sharp contrast to the Trump administration strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Biden has claimed the US doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. In reality, the Trump administration has bequeathed important leverage to the Biden team to capitalise on and deal with Beijing from a position of strength. However, if the Biden administration seeks to paint the Trump team’s China legacy in unflattering light, it will undermine that leverage and embolden Beijing to demand the repudiation and rollback of Trump’s actions. In fact, Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden will return to the accommodationist approach of the Obama period, when China created artificial islands and militarised the South China Sea without inviting US sanctions or any other international costs.
In this light, how the Indo-Pacific and China policies develop under Biden will help shape regional security and the Quad’s future. If Biden weakens America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies, it will raise serious concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding US strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Biden has already signalled the likely replacement of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Absent in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform and Biden’s campaign statements was any reference even to the widely used term “Indo-Pacific,” as if the Democrats wished to return to the old name that China prefers: “Asia-Pacific”. After his election, Biden started referring to the “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Instead, Biden coined a new phrase—“secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Also, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from Biden during a congratulatory call that US security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Just before demitting office as the US vice president, Mike Pence asked the incoming president to “stay the course” and “stand up to Chinese aggression and trade abuses.” Pence called the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy “essential to our prosperity, our security and the vitality of freedom in the world.”
However, Biden thus far has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. A “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” which by definition doesn’t exclude autocracies like China, would imply the abandonment of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s goal of a rules-based and democracy-led order.
Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration-initiated ideological offensive against the CCP as a threat to the Indo-Pacific and the wider world will survive under Biden. If it doesn’t, the CCP’s vicelike grip on China will endure, with its external aggression accelerating.
WILL BIDEN CO-OPT INDIA?
Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy approach will have an important bearing on Indian security and the direction of US-India strategic collaboration. China’s aggressive expansionism has already driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defence and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the US and the signing of military logistics agreements last year with Japan and Australia.
The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the centre of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration—in a symbolic nod towards India—renamed the US military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
Will Biden be able to build on that momentum in bilateral relations and formalise a soft alliance with New Delhi? The Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has created a significant opening for Washington to bring India along.
China’s aggression has compounded India’s security challenges by turning the once-lightly-patrolled Himalayan frontier into a “hot” border. Beijing has also hung the threat of further military surprises, even as it deepens its strategic nexus with Pakistan to contain India. India henceforth will have to patrol the Himalayan frontier in a manpower-intensive way and raise additional mountain-warfare forces to help counter the growing Chinese threat.
Bolstering deterrence holds the key, as Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of what is one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders. India remains committed to strengthening strategic partnerships with key powers in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration’s co-option of India will be pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the other Quad members—the US, Japan and Australia—are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
India’s co-option, in fact, will ensure that the Quad becomes a de facto strategic alliance and starts playing a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the Indo-Pacific. That development, in turn, will serve as further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire.
The momentum towards deeper US-India strategic collaboration, however, could perceptively slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific strategy and returns to the Obama-era accommodationist approach towards China. If that happens, it would convince Indian policymakers to step up military modernisation so that India not only effectively counters Chinese threats and aggression but also starts imposing significant deterrent costs on Beijing. In any event, security across the Indo-Pacific, including US strategic interests, would benefit if India reinvented itself as a more secure and competitive nation.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.