While the world keenly observes the crisis of American democracy unfolding and the swearing-in of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States (U.S.), the nations of the Indo-Pacific will be eagerly awaiting the unveiling of Biden’s strategic vision for the region. In all likelihood, Biden and his foreign policy team will seek to reverse the ‘America First’ platitude proffered by his predecessor.
Trump’s platform saw a radical departure from multilateralism, the flagrant disregard of key alliance structures, and vociferous attacks toward both strategic competitors and allies alike. Trump embarked on an expedition of seclusion, Robinson Crusoe style, albeit for twenty-four years less.
In doing so he abdicated America’s position of international leadership – arguably the hallmark of the international system since the end of the Second World War. Consequently, the world’s collective confidence in the U.S. has waned. So has its moral authority. Biden will most definitely seek to reverse that, but whether or not that is even possible is yet to be seen. Because as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating so eloquently puts it “if you pawn the crown it is incapable of being redeemed at the same value.”
In a hopeful yet slightly lamenting essay last year for Foreign Affairs, Biden aimed then President Trump’s foreign policy tack stating that “working cooperatively with other nations that share our values and goals does not make the United States a chump…it makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners.” But what does this imply for the Indo-Pacific?
It means that Biden will hark back to the U.S. values of the pre-Trump era, attempt to course-correct and to regain that moral authority that was spectacularly squandered over the past four years. Biden will reconnect with strategic allies jilted by Trump. The new President will also, in all likelihood, seek to abate the state of U.S.-China relations, to foment a framework wherein both powers can coexist.
Biden will also pivot from the bilateralism and the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude that characterised Trump’s foreign policy toward building multilateral, pro-democratic leagues that share common interests. This would be a step in the right direction because instability is not in China’s best interests, nor is it in the wider region’s best interests.
Beijing is therefore likely to offer a proverbial olive branch to test whether or not Biden and his foreign policy run-on squad can work productively with their Chinese counterparts, to reconstitute the relationship toward a more productive and mutually beneficial end. But China is likely to do this only after they have tested Biden’s resolve. How exactly they will go about this, I am quite sure we will know in the not too distant future.
That mutually beneficial end means a more stable U.S.-China relationship. One that is less fickle. This in and of itself would have a profound impact on the Indo-Pacific. When Trump was at the helm, he augmented the U.S. military’s footprint in the Indo-Pacific, ironically cementing the ‘Pivot to Asia’ of Trump’s favourite political piñata, former President Barack Obama. And under Biden, this is unlikely to change. What’s more, is with Biden’s penchant for multilateralism one could therefore also predict an attempt at strengthening regional alliances long-established where he will emphasise agile regional diplomacy to check economic and security issues. This list is far from exhaustive, but it is a starting point.
President Biden is inheriting an Indo-Pacific portfolio of gargantuan proportions. One that is vexing, and one that will be fiendishly difficult to get across. Between COVID-19, recession, nuclear proliferation, the less carrot more stick approach that China is adopting in the region, climate change, and the list goes on, Biden’s back is against the wall. But he has many years of Senate Foreign Relations Committee experience, and his incoming foreign policy team is veteran foreign service officers also with many years of experience navigating diplomacy and politics in the corridors of power. Does he have the stamina and resolve for the job? Only time will tell.