The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin just announced their diplomatic visit to Japan and South Korea at the end of March. This will be the first-ever overseas trip by any Cabinet officials in the Biden administration. Shortly after the announcement, Biden also scheduled a virtual Quad meeting with Japan, India and Australia to exchange views on a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region on 12th March. The Department of Defense even described these meetings are to strengthen the alliance as the alliance is a “cornerstone of peace and security”. US is stepping up its endeavors to revitalize its ties with its partners, but are these enough to restore US reliability in the region?
US absence by Trump fostered Japan’s leading role in Asia
Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy prompted Japan to step up its efforts to create a more independent foreign policy, rather than merely relying on the US for regional security. Trump’s “America First” policy, from rejecting an open, multilateral trade bloc to blatantly questioning the US’ expenditure spending to his allies, inflicted distrust among Asian countries. On one hand, Trump decided to withdraw the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and on the other, Trump threatened to remove stationing of the US troops if the allies refused to pay for the cost of deployments, accusing them “free-riders“. Such distrust of Trump’s presidency triggered Tokyo’s fear of Washington’s possible abandonment, as US’ commitment to Asia was shown conditional only.
Therefore, Japan seemed to have accepted the likelihood of a reducing American role in the region. To prepare itself for a possible US abandonment, Tokyo shifted its foreign policy focus to engaging Southeast Asia. During Trump’s administration, Abe emphasized ASEAN importance in its foreign policy, such as the “Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy” to promote political norms and civil rights, free sea and open economies. Even when Suga, Abe’s successor, came to power, he delivered an inaugural speech and shed light on the significance of ASEAN in achieving a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which aligns with Abe’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) vision. His speech intended to form a united stance with ASEAN by highlighting the rule of law for territorial disputes and ensuring freedom of navigation. This reflects Japan’s determination in deepening its foothold to contribute to regional security through spreading liberal norms.
In these years, Japan’s leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region gained recognition, particularly those in Southeast Asia due to their shared perception of China’s maritime assertiveness. Beijing has taken advantage of the US diminishing engagement to flex its muscles in the region. For instance, Beijing attempted to fill the power vacuum left by Washington by pushing for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Additionally, Beijing also began its extensive dredging and military operations in the South China Sea, such as its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) tests near the disputed Spratly islands to show off its counter-intervention capabilities. Because of the shared threat perception of China, Japan is welcomed by its Asian neighbors. First of all, Tokyo further boosted economic cooperation with them. For instance, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, which focuses on Southeast Asia and is backed by concessional financing, offers an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Alongside economic aspects, Japan and the Philippines conducted their first joint naval exercises and agreed to provide six patrol vessels to enhance Vietnam’s patrolling capabilities in the South China Sea. Due to the friendly ties established, a recent poll by CSIS found that over 90 per cent of ASEAN respondents regard Japan as friendly and reliable. To balance against China’s increasing influence, Southeast Asia needs stable partners and Japan is perceived to be the leading one to offset the China-associated security risks.
What could Biden do to regain Asia’s confidence?
After Biden became the president, Asia’s attitude towards the US regional commitment remains skeptical, however. Concerns over the US’ ability to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the US economy still prevail. Therefore, many in Asia, including Japan, are worried that Washington would be too occupied in dealing with the domestic situation. Even though Biden has pledged to join international organizations and embrace multilateralism, many in Asia no longer see the US as a reliable partner after four years of Trump’s presidency.
In the face of this, Biden should first reassure and re-engage allies by strengthening the alliances. Its cooperation with Quad, an evolving security partnership with Japan, America, Australia and India that upholds a free and open Indo-Pacific region, would be an evidence of American defense commitment. Second, joint military exercise plays a crucial role to confirm US military presence and its willingness to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This February, US dual carriers – the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group – already conducted naval exercises in the South China Sea. This sent an important signal to Beijing that the US is not going to connive at China’s expansive territorial claims. Meanwhile, the stationing of the US military troops in Japan and South Korea shall also continue. It does not merely aim at safeguarding those countries, but also acts as a wider scope for regional stability and maintaining the US-led postwar liberal order.
Second, re-committing to free trade and multilateral institutions is also of paramount importance to the US to uphold a regional liberal order. Trump has skipped multilateral meetings, incorporating the 2017 East Asia Summit (EAS), the 2018 APEC summit and the 2018 EAS, leading to Asian countries questioning the US reliability as a regional strategic partner. To gain back Asia’s trust, the Biden administration needs to be present consistently at the meetings and to convince countries that other domestic and international priorities will not sway the US focus on Asia. Biden could make the most of the G20 in the year 2022 to consolidate multilateral cooperation with many emerging economies. By involving in these multilateral institutions, the US would be able to show countries, not just those in Asia, its willingness to shape global rules. Furthermore, Washington should initiate talks on possible Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) participation and other free trade agreements (FTAs) with Asian countries. Such FTAs would be beneficial to the US and the region in the long term as Southeast Asia is estimated to become the 4th largest economy in the world by 2050.
In the meantime, the US shall not force any Asian country to choose one side between the US and China, or blatantly at odds with China. ASEAN is still pursuing equidistant diplomacy by staying neutral and avoiding to favor one country over another. Southeast Asian countries have sought to keep the US’ engagement to counteract China’s increasing strategic assertions, but at the same time, China becomes the biggest trading partner in the region. Therefore, such states do not want to pick sides while being sandwiched between these two powers, nor will they abandon their economic links with China. Yet, what the US could do is to let them continue to diversify their strategic connections with major regional powers to preserve their autonomy, and at the same time offers a constructive bilateral relationship with many of them. In recent years, the US has been developing a friendly relationship with Vietnam, with the establishment of a comprehensive partnership in 2013 and pledging to elevate their cooperation into a strategic partnership in the near future. What’s more, offering aid to Southeast Asia also paves way for Washington’s engagement, such as coordinating projects for the Mekong-US Partnership, from COVID-19 response, from human trafficking to anti-drought measures. Instead of directly counterweighing China’s influence, this will help secure the US’ position in the region.
The challenges Biden shoulders will be immense. The region’s continued stability hangs on America’s presence and mutual strategic embrace with its Asian partners. Yet right now, Asian countries are sharing the question of what kind of relationship the US will establish with them and how the US will exert its power in the region. To rebuild Asia’s confidence, Biden will need to demonstrate his iron will to break away from isolationism from Trump’s “America First”, and convey to the region with firm actions that the US is here to stay.