In the early autumn of 2020, when Joe Biden was leading decisively in the polls, many in the Indo-Pacific region were reflecting on what his policy would be to China, Japan, India, and the region more broadly. Would he break sharply from Donald Trump’s approach? Would he revert to the Obama administration’s policies? Are there grounds to foresee a multilateral Democratic foreign policy distinct from that of Trump’s and responsive to far-reaching recent developments? New leadership in Japan with Suga Yoshihide replacing Abe Shinzo also prompted a spate of queries about how Japan’s policy might change whether in dealing again with Trump or addressing the new Biden administration. The rising momentum in Indo-US relations showcased in the October 6 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue held in Tokyo could be accelerated by Biden, joined by Kamala Harris as the first Indian-American vice-president, or derailed by the Democrats’ greater stress on human rights. Whereas Trump waved the US stick more over the South China Sea, he had dropped the economic carrot of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Biden was advised to adopt a comprehensive regional strategy beyond the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and to join summits.

In the articles below Trump’s personal diplomacy with Abe and Narendra Modi is praised, while his neglect of the East Asian Summit is regretted. From all angles there are warnings about the next administration carrying its China policy too far, decoupling or forcing countries to choose. Recalling Obama’s policies, reservations are raised about excessive timidity, but warnings point also to excessive pressure ahead for Japan to decouple from China, ASEAN to coalesce against China, or India to set aside strategic autonomy and become a full-fledged force in the Quad. As the US presidential election neared, anticipation was mounting along with pointed advice.

Contemplating US Policy on China and the Indo-Pacific: Some Thoughts regarding a Possible Biden Administration by Amanda Trea Phua and Joseph Chinyong Liow

Under Trump, the US has stepped back from its familiar leadership role in several multilateral initiatives, cast aspersions at global governance efforts, flirted with dictators and authoritarian regimes more brazenly than ever in the past, and pursued hawkish policies and postures that have contributed to the freefall in Sino-US relations. This article contemplates what Asia policy under a Biden administration might look like by focusing on China and the Indo-Pacific—the pivotal issues that frame US strategy towards the region. It makes three key arguments: 1) structural and political factors will ensure that Biden will not deviate considerably from the current hard line on China (though opportunities to work with China will be pursued, this will and do little to tamp down the present tough tone); 2) although Biden will pursue multilateral engagement welcomed by many regional states, regional dynamics have undergone a transformation in recent years, such that the era of US primacy has passed; and 3) notwithstanding how carefully calibrated the Asia policy may be, it will be held hostage by hyper-polarized domestic politics bedeviling America.

Few presidential candidates can claim the same breadth of foreign policy experience that Biden possesses. Many expect a Biden administration to hit the ground running with an invigorated foreign policy establishment kept out of the current administration or voluntarily self-excluded. Biden’s informal foreign policy team is noticeably large, expressing his inclination to seek a broad range of views, including those of his progressive counterparts. He is likely to pursue a more deliberate and consultative policy approach. If the present advisory team is any measure, it would include many who served in the Obama administration. Biden also pledged to organize and host a global “Summit for Democracy” within the first year of his presidency, which would bring together democracies to forge a common agenda. There is renewed urgency to strengthen multilateral mechanisms so as to create more equitable and sustainable systems in order to address the shortcomings and blind spots that have imperilled the “liberal international order.” Foreign policy will look less aggressive and truculent to “place the United States at the head of the table” not by the “example of power,” but by “the power of our example.”

This is a necessary task, but it will not be easy given the present challenges. The prospect of a reinvigoration of American participation in multilateralism, and attendant attention to institution building and consolidation, will likely be applauded and welcome among its friends and partners in Asia, but expectations should be moderated with a dose of realism. Embracing multilateralism, Washington will invariably raise the expectations of its regional partners for greater American commitment. Whether Biden will have the bandwidth and resources at his disposal to see these through will be watched carefully. he cannot simply disregard the nationalist mood on the ground, Domestic imperatives could well precipitate foreign policy adventurism designed to divert attention away from the difficulties back home. Already, this has been happening to some extent in the move by the Trump administration to blame China. The foreign policy of the next administration will thence have to carefully consider the interplay between sentiments at home and commitments abroad. Regional states are necessarily taking a broader view of their individual as well as collective interests, and diversifying their partnerships so as to not be over-reliant on any single major power. The net effect of this is a regional security and economic landscape that is increasingly multipolar in nature, defined by complex and intersecting dynamics. Looking ahead, Washington should factor in this new geopolitical reality. The erosion of American credibility in the region during the Trump years has catalyzed efforts by regional states to reshape regionalism away from traditional assumptions of American predominance.

Though the usual gripes about China—trade theft, election interference, human rights violations—were conspicuously absent in Biden’s acceptance speech at his nomination, it would be foolish to conclude that the Democrat camp has merely been playing to the gallery with its sabre rattling. A Biden administration will pursue a multilateral approach involving partners and international institutions to confront Beijing when it is deemed to be out of step with accepted international norms. This prospect of a more multilateral approach in concert with friends and allies has already catalyzed consternation in China, where assessments are that a less confrontational but more predictable US China policy that is pursued in tandem with others may work against its long-term interests. A Biden administration that is seeking to restore a multilateral order will have to consider gradually easing tariffs against the Chinese so as to demonstrate Washington’s own commitments to this international rules-based order, even if it means biding their time to bring Beijing to acquiesce on trade regulations or technology governance. In their robust championing of democratization and human rights, the leadership of America should take care not to undermine larger strategic imperatives on which their own national interests turn and that the China policy they outline is not based on punitive measures, even if it appears so at first glance. Rather, it is predicated on the restoration of US strength and influence. This could be a far more compartmentalised and calibrated China strategy that allows the US to draw a firm line across trade and national security issues, yet leaving room for collaboration on shared concerns such as those relating to global health and climate change. A Biden administration would likely only take escalatory measures if Beijing moves first to change the status quo in Taiwan.

Compared to the pivot, the FOIP strategy differs in at least two ways. First, in its current form, the FOIP strategy is overwhelmingly focused on defense and security concerns, such as military interoperability. It does exactly what the Obama-era pivot tried to avoid. The FOIP essentially casts China—together with North Korea and Russia—as a hostile threat to the regional security infrastructure and the international rules-based order. A Biden administration may prefer to broaden and refashion the FOIP strategy so as to make it more palatable for friends and allies, many of whom are alarmed by the current narrative that barely veils its explicit targeting of China. That would have to come with a reassessment of its agenda: a renegotiation of a regional trade deal, and confirmation of the continuity of US engagement in the region. The US position on both the FOIP and the Quad appears to be informed predominantly by its strategic rivalry with China, which has triggered varying degrees of apprehension on the part of regional states. Biden would in all probability take a leaf out of the Obama playbook and make a more concerted effort to participate in regional summitry. In a region where diplomatic culture is predicated foremost on presence at the table, this cannot be overstated. Equally consequential, this would give the ASEAN-led meetings more teeth. The authors point to prevailing views on how the Obama administration failed to be more decisive as the balance of power and influence in the region shifted, while warning Biden to be cautious about becoming unilaterally decisive.

Anticipating Japan’s Attitudes toward the US President in 2021 by Akimoto Satohiro*

Japan has to get along and deal with the US president, regardless of individual personalities and party affiliation. As a result, it has been assuming an emotionally detached and realistic approach to US presidents, as compared with other industrialized democracies. There was never a massive crowd admiring Obama or denouncing Trump on the streets of Tokyo. Although ties with Obama were good, Abe seemed to benefit more from the close “friendship” with Trump in terms of elevating Japan as a specially trusted US ally in the eyes of the international community. He was also able to secure support in advancing Japan’s grand “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision.

Japan would expect from Biden reestablishment of the US as a major player in the international community. Japan sees Trump as a highly unusual president in US history. it has not achieved much to advance not only US interests but also the international community’s interests. It has also damaged the leadership position of the US and traditional relationships with allies, which share fundamental political and economic interests. Obama and Trump are polar opposites on almost all political issues, but they share a priority on domestic issues and aversion against getting sucked into serious problems overseas. It is partially a reflection of changing geopolitical realities in the world. Challenges are numerous and complex. The US no longer enjoys dominance in matters of military, economy, and technology. But more importantly, it reflects the desires of their respective support bases. Japan would expect Biden and his administration to realize that the US national interest ultimately must be protected and advanced in the international context over the long run. 

Abe is probably the most consequential prime minister since Yoshida in Japan’s postwar history. He brought stability to Japanese politics and raised the country’s profile in the international community—both achievements rare for a Japanese prime minister. Abe is consequential because he not only talked about those foundational values of liberal world order but also introduced a grand vision FOIP based on them. It is clear that Suga’s forte is not foreign policy issues, which is quite a contrast to Abe. Suga does not possess the charisma and charm of Abe, but he would most likely work hard to further strengthen the security alliance and press ahead on the FOIP vision, knowing that they are the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy and the key to the success of his administration. Japan would expect from the Biden administration continuous commitment to the alliance and promotion of the vision. Actually, Suga has placed importance on reaching out to the rest of the Quad, the key countries in the FOIP.

Obama adapted a “structural reassurance” policy at the beginning of his first term to accept and encourage China’s historic rise as a major economic and military global power, while also encouraging China to behave within the boundaries of accepted international norms in terms of economy, trade, diplomacy, or the military. Japan interpreted “strategic reassurance” as a policy continuation of “responsible stakeholder,” feeling the Obama administration did not do enough to “address the sources of mistrust” to change China’s strategy and behavior to conform with international norms. It did not press China on human rights issues and decided not to meet with the Dalai Lama, when he visited Washington in 2009. The Obama administration always seemed in need of China’s cooperation on global issues such as climate change, Iran, and North Korea. Moreover, it did not seem to effectively deal with China when China unilaterally declared “core values.” When Obama attended the East Asia Summit in November 2012, he urged Asian leaders, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, to rein in tensions over territorial issues and did not firmly support Japan. Obama also did not protect the Philippines and Vietnam over their territorial dispute with China despite the fact that China unilaterally claimed the entire South China Sea as their territory. As China grew more aggressive in pursuing its territorial and economic ambitions in Asia, the Obama administration began to talk more about “pivot to Asia” and “strategic rebalance” rather than “strategic reassurance,” but he did not fully convince Japan that he would order the US military to fight a war with China over the rocks in the East China Sea. In the meantime, China continued to expand its territorial ambitions and to bully countries in the region. Under such circumstances, Abe tried to outflank China by cultivating cooperative relationships with the ASEAN countries visiting all of them, building strategic relationships with India and Australia, and partnering with the Obama administration in its “strategic rebalance.” Xi Jinping reluctantly had to reckon with Abe.

Abe primarily saw Trump’s apprehension about China, when he came into office, in a positive way. It was a dramatic shift from what seemed like accommodation of China, which had allowed China to act more aggressively in the region, to rejection of China as a challenger to the US.  However, as his practical approach to China shows, Abe does not fully agree with Trump in making an enemy out of China particularly for domestic political purposes. Geographically, Japan is right next to China and economically China is a partner as well as a competitor. 
What Japan would like to see from Biden is careful formulation of a grand China strategy hopefully in cooperation with major allies including Japan. Japan thinks China is too important and too consequential to deal with for short-term tactical gain in a piecemeal fashion.

Japan has reluctantly entered bilateral trade negotiations with the US because it had been Japan’s hope that the US would eventually come back into the TPP. Abe made the decision mainly to appease Trump. A limited agreement was reached, mostly on lower tariffs on agricultural and industrial trade. Robert Lighthizer called the digital agreement the gold standard; many others saw it as a limited agreement, which does not even require congressional approval. Senator Tom Carper, who strongly supports Biden, called the agreement “TPP-light—very light.” Japan ultimately expects from Biden that the US will seriously consider rejoining the TPP. Suga mentioned only several days after he took office that Japan’s basic policy of encouraging the US to rejoin the TPP has not changed. Japan also expects that the US will take free trade seriously, that Biden will take a realistic and sensible approach to free trade, including re-engagement with international institutions which support free trade, such as the World Trade Organization.

Suga, who observed the benefits of the close friendship between Abe and Trump, would be determined to build a close personal relationship with Biden. Not an expert in diplomacy and seemingly uncomfortable in dealing with foreign leaders, his plan is to continue the path which Abe successfully laid. Suga retained Minister for Foreign Affairs Motegi Toshimitsu and newly appointed Minister for Defense Kishi Nobuo, brother of Abe, as minister of defense. There will be no surprise for Biden on the fundamental positions of the Suga administration in major diplomatic, security, and economic policies vis-à-vis the US. Suga would expect Biden’s cooperation in dealing with difficult international issues, whether climate change, Russia, North Korea, or South Korea. As Biden called himself a “transitional candidate,” Suga expects to get to know the next generation of political leaders, starting with Vice President Kamara Harris, Japan expects to build a close relationship with next generation leaders, who are expected to play an important role in the Biden administration, working together to give these leaders in both Japan and the US opportunities to get to know each other well and work on difficult bilateral issues.

Sustaining the Momentum in the Indo-Pacific: The US Presidential Elections and Priorities for Indo-US ties by Shruti Pandalai

“Under President Trump, we ve taken our defense cooperation to new heights, solidified our common vision for the Indo-Pacific, and taken a far tougher stand on Pakistan s unacceptable support for terrorism in the region” This recognition—both Republican and Democrat—is grounded in the acknowledgement of India’s expanding economic, political, and military profile and that India will increasingly shape global conversations. Today the Indo-US relationship spans every conceivable domain from security to health care as envisaged in the Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership.

Yet, we know that the trade front will continue to flare up periodically even as security and defense cooperation find greater clarity—especially in the Indo-Pacific theater. There has been concern in India about bipartisan support changing due to heated US domestic debates on India’s internal decisions. Given that US domestic politics is currently experiencing its most divisive phase, New Delhi expects its friends in Washington to be more understanding of the vexing maze of concerns overwhelming nations globally—partly due to growing nationalism, threats to territorial sovereignty, and increasing polarization of societies now amplified in the post pandemic world. This curious pull and push of tensions, which persist despite the dominant logic of this relationship, will be inherited by the next administration in Washington and have to be managed by both sides.  While the current relationship has taken two decades to reach where it is, the transformative changes have been brought to the fore under Modi and Trump.

Various factors have aided the current momentum in US-India ties, including converging interests in managing the China challenge. Despite Modi’s many attempts to establish a multifaceted relationship with China, the loss of Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley clash in the summer of 2020 and the continued tensions along the disputed border have made India reevaluate the relationship—an “inflection point” in ties with an unprecedented polarization of public sentiment against China. During this crisis American support—whether diplomatic cooperation, acquisition and deployment of US-made military hardware, reported intelligence sharing, or even rhetorical statements of support—made media headlines. The continued logic of a closer partnership with the United States is to manage the China relationship. This approach has seen a mix of three strategies—engagement of China, internal balancing and building capability, and external balancing and diversifying of partnerships. For the US, the strategicbeton India has acquired an urgency as it comes to terms with its own failure for turning a blind eye to Beijing’s exploitation of the fissures of the international system to aid its rise and acknowledging that its entire strategic calculus —at the risk of oversimplification—was based on wishful thinking. Another factor is the influential Indian-American community, which has also become a game changer in the relationship.

Biden is no stranger to India. As a veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he has a record of advocating stronger ties with India. In his 2020 campaign Biden has highlighted his crucial role in spearheading bipartisan congressional support for the Indo-US nuclear agreement of 2005. Biden also said he would lift the temporary suspension of H-1B visas imposed by Trump and hinted at a more inclusive and generous immigration policy. Worries over Biden’s comments on India’s internal decisions on Article 370 and the reorganization of J&K and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) were aired. There is also uncertainty over the influence of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, extremely critical of India. Given that Biden has put India’s key security concerns on managing China—intolerance for cross border terrorism, building further on convergence in the Indo-Pacific, and returning to pre-Trump era climate change discussions—front and center in his vision for relations, there is a sense that the current trajectory of ties will prevail. Also, both countries have over many decades cultivated an understanding of managing public discourse to ensure differences do not overshadow the trajectory of ties.

Despite the big picture being visible. there is reticence on both sides. Indian officials often make the point that it would be an unreasonable expectation from the US to want India to distance itself in its comprehensive and multilayered relationship with Russia. Such insistence is incompatible with India’s vision of a multipolar order and undermines its ability to deploy its assets independently based on its own requirements. India needs Russia for its strategic interests. Apart from keeping up the inventory of spare parts for Russian equipment, it recognizes Moscow’s defense ties with key countries in the Indo-Pacific including Vietnam and Indonesia and the role it can play in limiting Chinese actions both bilateral and potentially in cooperation with India.

The bilateral relationship may have overcome “hesitations of history,” but legacy issues around India’s conceptualization of strategic autonomy and non-alignment obfuscate the relationship periodically. This conversation gets testier when impatience with the relationship gives way to perceptions that Washington has overinvested in India and New Delhi has not delivered on the strategic bet that the US had hoped for. Despite Biden promising a tough stand on China, concerns that renewed engagement with Beijing on global issues like climate change would come at the expense of Asian neighbors remain. During the ongoing border crisis with China, bipartisan US support for a resolution that slammed Chinese aggression against India and growing territorial assertiveness made an impact on Indian public sentiment. Shared values across the social, political, and economic domains will continue to bind India and the US, but the slightest revision of positions especially on Pakistan, which India sees as part of India’s China challenge, will have the potential to derail ties.

There is a need for reorienting the American bureaucracy to deal with a changing region, which is no longer neatly bifurcated between India and China: 1) the US bureaucracy has long been structured in such a way as to heavily compartmentalize decision-making related to South Asia and East Asia and produce a bias toward East Asia; 2) relatively few policy matters have arisen since 2005 that have forced the United States to consider meaningful trade-offs between its India and China equities; and 3) new challenges may arise in an increasingly interconnected Indo-Pacific region.

US practitioners often point out that military partnership has not yet developed “habits of cooperation” that the US enjoys with close partners and lacks the tangible impact on core concerns. Two reasons are highlighted: 1) security cooperation is adapting specifically to Indian requirements, leading to structural ambiguity raising different expectations; and 2) Washington has understood that New Delhi is only looking to consult and coordinate on defense matters of shared concern but prefers to “operate in parallel rather than jointly achieving the benefits of cooperation while preserving strategic autonomy”—which the US still finds hard to accept. A case in point is the very interpretation of interoperability; for the US it is in the depth of engagement, while in India’s point of view, it is an exercise in trust building with foreign partners and focuses on breadth and wider engagement. There has been an exponential growth in engagement between the Quad members as well as partners like Europe, France, and Indonesia. For India, alignment with the US would be issue based.

It would be pragmatic not to impose institutionalization. The dominant view from India is to strengthen the Quad itself and flexibly engage different partners at different places. Many nations are worried that the US position change is less related to upholding international law and has more to do with Washington trying to escalate tensions with China. While Biden has repeatedly stressed a course correction in the treatment of allies and partners, nations across the region which have spent considerable effort in diversifying partnerships, competing, and engaging with China will not be quick to fall back to pre-Trump policies.

The article also calls for acknowledging the reality that the economic consensus in the Indo-Pacific has found less traction than the strategic consensus. While India’s efforts to resist Chinese expansionism through its principled stand against the BRI or decision to walk out of RCEP are appreciated now, India is also pushing for cooperation among like-minded countries to find alternatives to Beijing’s domination of global supply chains—a sign that India has not been able to take advantage of the diversification of supply chains out of China. As geopolitics dominates the 5G debate, India is hoping to spur large-scale electronics manufacturing and attract fresh investments after the government announced three specific policy roll outs to facilitate plug and play from Indian markets. Calling climate change the biggest threat of our times, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris agreement and a $2 trillion plan to galvanize action. For India and other developing countries questions will continue to arise on historic emissions and if developed countries led by the US would finance Indian efforts to mitigate climate change.