The past month saw a series of proactive U.S. engagements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, headlined by the announcement of a newly enhanced Australia-U.K.-U.S. trilateral security partnership (AUKUS) and the first-ever in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
This is a notable sequence of events, designed to illustrate the “lead the world by the power of our example” mantra introduced by President Joe Biden during his first foreign policy speech at the U.S. Department of State earlier this year. But perhaps more importantly, these moves also represent the beginning stages of a comprehensive approach by the Biden administration to facilitate “responsible competition” with China, as highlighted in Biden’s remarks at the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly.
From “All-Out” to “Responsible” Competition
From a policy standpoint, this “responsible competition” approach serves as a follow-up to the new approach previously articulated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.”
Realizing that their unrivaled network of allies and partners remains one of the key components of the United States’ “position of strength,” the Biden administration seeks to deepen ties with allies and partners. The goal is to assemble a capable coalition to strengthen its long-term competitiveness vis-à-vis China and exert higher pressure on Beijing to behave in accordance with a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific, while also minimizing the threat of conflict and avoiding direct confrontation in a Cold War “zero-sum” mindset.
The United States also attempts to promote an “integrated deterrence,” with diplomacy at the forefront. This approach is designed to utilize both military and non-military tools to advance forward presence and power projection, as well as building stronger defense cooperation and enhanced coordination with allies and partners. In this network of deterrence, AUKUS serves as an example of alliance-based defense partnerships, complementing the United States’ current military and security arrangements in the region, while the Quad serves as a new framework of U.S. regional engagement, with a focus toward meeting the region’s practical needs, instead of an immense fixation on security cooperation and competition with China.
At the same time, the Biden administration continues to intensify the decoupling process and reduce interdependence on China, especially in the high-tech realm. The U.S. has been seeking to monitor China’s acquisition of American technological firms; limit American investments and cutting-edge technology transfer to Chinese companies linked to the military or domestic surveillance sectors; ban Chinese IT giants such as Huawei and ZTE from operating in the U.S.; and call on allies and partners to avoid incorporating Chinese 5G technology in their systems. The U.S. also focuses on diversifying markets, including the digital economy and e-commerce, bolstering ties with allies to strengthen U.S. competitiveness.
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Through the Quad, Washington intends to promote a model of good governance and development for the Indo-Pacific region based on principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and the rule of law. The Quad aims to provide public goods for countries in the region, including COVID-19 vaccines and health, high standard infrastructure, education, critical and emerging technology, cybersecurity and space data sharing, etc. These are all areas of high regional demand, reflecting a U.S.-led collective effort to present a superior model of development to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
At the same time, the United States retains its willingness to cooperate with China. The Biden administration fully understands the difficulty of dealing with urgent global challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and an inclusive global economic recovery without pragmatic collaboration with China and other global powers. In addition, China remained the United States’ largest trading partner, largest source of imports and third-largest export market in 2020. Exports to China supported 1.2 million jobs in the U.S. in 2019. Despite China-U.S. trade friction, a majority of American companies (87 percent) chose not to shift their production out of China.
Chinese officials, in their public statements, still viewed the U.S. approach with high skepticism and suspicion. Beijing has repeatedly called on the U.S. and its partners to abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception. However, as evidenced by recent high-level dialogues between the two countries, in which the two presidents discussed areas of mutual interests and agreed to promote in-depth communication channels to ensure competition does not veer into conflict, China seemed to appreciate the Biden administration’s new approach toward great power competition, seeing this shift as beneficial to China’s interests. Other than the resumption of high-level communication, the two countries have recently shown other signs of de-escalation, most notably the release of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou.
Implications for the Indo-Pacific Region
It should be noted, however, that China- U.S. strategic competition remains an inevitable and perhaps irreversible trend in the short and medium term. Though their leaders have made it clear conflicts are undesirable, the risks of miscalculation remain high. However, should the shift away from all-out, geopolitics-centric competition toward a competition of development models remain the dominant form of the China-U.S. competition, the region should stand to benefit.
For the sake of regional interests, major powers should compete in terms of public goods provided to the region, with an aim toward the promotion of peace, stability, and prosperity. Should tensions remain high, the U.S. and China can look to constructively engage with other stakeholders in the region, especially ASEAN.
With its central role in promoting regional engagement, ASEAN can play the role of facilitator, coordinating the China-U.S. “responsible competition” in the best interests of the region. ASEAN can help to distribute public goods in a more effective manner through close consultation and coordination, either bilaterally, multilaterally with ASEAN as a whole, or minilaterally with ASEAN member states. In this way, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific as a whole can proactively retain their voice in great power competition, playing a role in facilitating cooperation and mitigating conflicts for the interests of everyone involved.
In order to fill that role, however, ASEAN should look to do more on its part. While the Quad remains diplomatically savvy enough to always mention their respect for ASEAN centrality in public statements, the expanded role of the Quad should more than worry leaders of ASEAN member states. The lack of consensus and subsequent progress in dealing with regional issues, most notably the current situation in Myanmar, if not properly addressed soon, will continue to hamper ASEAN’s reputation as the region’s go-to mediator.
In summary, ASEAN and the region can stand to benefit from the shift from all-out competition to “responsible competition” between the U.S. and China. But whether they can seize that opportunity or not remains to be seen.