Welcome Back America: Some things have changed
Ian Kemish AM is a former senior Australian diplomat. His Government career included service as Charge d’Affaires in Laos, Head of the Consular and South East Asia divisions of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Head of the Prime Minister’s International Division, Ambassador to Germany and High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea. He was awarded membership of the Order of Australia for his leadership of Australia’s response to the 2002 Bali bombings. He joined the private sector in 2013, taking on different leadership roles in the internationally focused resource sector, located in Washington and then Melbourne. He now divides his time between strategic advisory work, international development and commentary, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.
The unpredictable Trump administration undermined US reliability in Asia. But it also motivated the middle powers of the region to seek out security and economic relationships with each other.
The news has been encouraging lately for those of us who value principled and strategic United States engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Joe Biden wants the region to know, along with the rest of the world, that ‘America is back’. When the President spoke with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in early February he did not mince his words about Beijing’s approach to human rights and its bullying regional behaviour. But the two leaders also spoke maturely about collaboration on COVID-19, climate change and weapons proliferation. The US Secretaries of State and Defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, have now visited key regional ally Japan, where Blinken signalled that Washington would ‘push back’ when necessary on China’s sweeping use of ‘coercion and aggression’. They then travelled on to Seoul to discuss regional strategic challenges including North Korea. In a welcome sign that there is actually a plan behind all this, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will have follow-up meetings at the end of the week with the Director of China’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The United States will need to appreciate that things have changed while it has been away. One thing is self-evident: dealing with China has become a lot more difficult for countries of the region over the last four years. Beijing’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and the East China Sea has elevated concerns in regional capitals given the implications for sea lane and trade security. The India-China border dispute has seen an increase in the frequency of violent skirmishes, and both sides have upgraded their military posture on the frontier. A worsening of Chinese aggression towards Hong Kong and Taiwan has sent a collective shiver through the region. Australia is growing increasingly concerned about China’s impact in the fragile economies of the South Pacific, and Beijing has sought to punish Canberra for its assertive political stance by introducing restrictions on some exports. We Australians felt cheered when Biden’s ‘Asia Tsar’, Kurt Campbell, said this week that the administration had made clear to China that ‘the US is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion’. We look forward with cautious optimism.
China’s worrying behaviour, combined with an absence of sensible US leadership, has also motivated leading countries of the region to seek out more substantial security and economic relationships with each other. Key regional democracies have driven a striking resurgence in the last 12 months of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’) the informal security arrangement between the US, Australia, India and Japan. This grouping has been reinvigorated steadily as China’s behaviour has become increasingly aggressive, with a marked uptick in engagement in 2020. Cooperation has included joint military exercises, and further intended areas for cooperation include the development of joint defence technology, maritime interoperability, intelligence sharing, and coordination of diplomatic messaging on regional security issues. There has even been some consideration of a joint infrastructure funding scheme as an ‘alternative’ to the BRI.
President Biden has signalled his renewed support for the Quad, and on 12 March joined the leaders of the other three member countries in the group’s first summit, where they made a joint pledge to distribute one billion COVID vaccines across the region and flagged further cooperation on maritime, cyber and economic security. But it has not been Washington driving this. The credit really belongs with the other three partners, who came to a judgment that they needed to work together to set the regional agenda rather than become collateral damage from the strategic competition between the two global hegemons. As established middle powers, they recognised their combined potential and worked actively to navigate the fragmenting regional landscape, and have now created a credible intra-regional security partnership.
Meanwhile they have strengthened their own bilateral ties with each other, developing their security links and jointly funding important development partnerships with the region’s lower income countries. They have been shocked by Chinese aggression into working to diversify their own supply chains in the interests of greater independence. They are also showing a new willingness to engage on regional security issues with European countries which still feel they have something to contribute beyond their own hemisphere. Australia, India and France may not be an intuitive combination for many, but a formal trilateral dialogue has been underway between them since September 2020. France is also still very much a power in the South Pacific. Like-minded partners also welcome the United Kingdom’s stated intention to have a more visible and active presence in the Indo-Pacific, and its willingness to speak up on Hong Kong.
Each of the Indo-Pacific’s three middle-power democracies believe in the value of US engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and will continue to encourage the new administration in Washington down the path it has started to tread. Many other regional nations also want America to get back to playing its traditional stabilising role, even if they are not as vocal about it. But key US allies in the region are no longer content to wait for Washington to step back in. They can be expected to act more deliberately and independently, and to work more with each other.
It also won’t be enough, from their point of view, for Biden to do better than Trump. That is too low a bar. President Trump made ridiculous demands of Japan in the military sphere while also threatening its auto industry with increased tariffs. He agreed with regional allies to maximise pressure on North Korea and then launched a bizarre bromance with its leader. When it came to China we went from trade cooperation to conflict and back again, and we were never sure if he was encouraging or condemning Beijing’s approach to the Uigurs. The deeper truth, though, is that regional faith in the America’s stabilising role had already declined before the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was a disappointment to many. It was under-resourced, and internal Democrat politics dented the administration’s trade policy ambitions in the region. Political changes in Japan undermined the military alliance and Obama’s attempts to engage North Korea led only to military attacks on the South and a nuclear test.
The dynamics of this region have changed in ways that should be welcome to everyone other than Beijing and its client states. We can expect a more activist approach from key US allies in setting the agenda with the US, and a more complex web of intra-regional cooperation among countries that believe in a rules-based international order. These shifts may require some adjustment in thinking on the part of the US administration – there are higher expectations now about what real commitment to the region should look like. The United States will need to show up to the region’s summit meetings, participate actively in its economic architecture, and speak out when principles are being trashed. With its allies, it will need to maintain a consistent focus on promoting recovery in a part of the world that is critical to global security and prosperity, but which is also scarred by the pandemic. In all this Washington will need to be prepared to be guided by the expertise that exists in the region.
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