Indo-Pacific Policy Under the New US Administration

Tridip Boruah
January 10th, 2021


Image Courtesy: Nikkie Asia

On 20th January, 2021, the US President Elect Joe Biden will take over the office from incumbent President Trump. The preceding years of Trump administration have been riding on the wave of ‘America First policy’, fomenting unpredictability of foreign policies. This was further transcended by the Covid-19 pandemic, with China remaining the focal point embroiled with both clash of interest and value. It is an undeniable fact that the Trump effect will reflect in formulation of US domestic and foreign policies for some time, leading the upcoming Biden administration to confront certain permanent structural shifts arising from it. The immediate and long term effects , particularly at a time when the US’ soft power has relatively become weaker in the face of growing Chinese economic clout seems to be strengthening Chinese emergence as the next hegemon from Asia. In such a scenario the strategically important Indo-Pacific is of immense value for both the US and China, and controlling its sphere of influence will give an advantageous position, which the Biden administration will be well aware of. The ASEAN will hold the key in exploiting the true potent of free and open Indo-Pacific which the upcoming Biden administration would like to leverage. This article sheds light on the probable policy options of Biden towards one of the most sensitive zone during the course of evolution of this century.

Economic Policy

Negotiations that began during the 2012 ASEAN Summit for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) finally culminated on 15th of November 2020 with its 15 members signing, making it the largest trade bloc in history accounting for 30% of the global GDP of 26.2 trillion dollars. On script, it may be ASEAN-led, but it is a known reality that it is Chinese steered which will create a more cohesive Asian trade bloc and supply chain. The RCEP had got wings at a time when the US has a diminishing economic influence in the region. Even though Biden has promising to redeliver on liberal commitments but it is unlikely that the decision be reversed given weak domestic political support to push for the US membership of FTAs in the region. Moreover, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that was once championed by the then vice president Joe Biden, has been pushed by the Trump administration into cold storage withdrawing the US from it. It has since then been functioning as Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with limited US scope under Biden to re-join the agreement in the light of other emerging policy issues as well as diminishing free trade values in US politics; which will further reduce US economic influence in the region. RCEP also took shape at a time when Chinese economy grew 4.9 % between July and September 2020, making it the first major economy to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, China is expected to be the only G20 economy to grow this year, at an environment when the global economy is projected to contract by 4.4 % according to IMF, handing a hefty leverage to China from it. Given Chinese economic might, it would be not a cake walk for Biden to persuade South East Asian nations to side with US. Further on the trade front, it is expected from the Biden administration to be less antagonistic in terms of tariffs, removing the uncertainties persisting the global economy which will be welcomed by countries like Vietnam and Thailand, who have growing trade surpluses with the US for which it was attracting countervailing measures from the Trump administration. Also it is expected from the Biden administration to improve its relations from previous Trump administration in terms of foreign aid to South East Asian countries in the midst of Chinese “musk diplomacy”. A significant fraction of these aids would be targeted in the healthcare space. Post-pandemic these aids would prove worthy for the resiliency of the region in the face of Chinese debt driven Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Overall ASEAN countries would have the prospects of benefiting from the competing US and Chinese assistance programme that each has to offer. The ASEAN countries will fear the cooling-off of US -China tariff war under Biden administration. These countries have benefitted from surging merchandise trade with the US since the trade war began in 2017. But Biden is expected to keep pressuring China through a soft approach as compared to Trump administration in terms of targeted non-tariff actions, application of export controls, investment restrictions and financial sanctions. This will set in motion , the decoupling of US and China fastened by the pandemic thereby continuing incentivised firms to tilt towards South East Asian nations as the most nearest preferred destination.

Security Policy

The ASEAN since its formation have been weighing much on the geo-economic front ignoring the geostrategic aspect;  though making it economically prosperous but leaving it vulnerable to the security challenges of the geopolitical landscape. This triggered some rising Chinese expansionist tendencies, which was also recently witnessed during the 36th ASEAN Summit where its member countries flagged concerns with regard to it. The odds of major military clash involving the US, China and South East Asian nations in the South China Sea form a significant picture within the larger Indo-Pacific scenario. With growing Chinese island building and militarization activities in the South China Sea, the US under Biden administration would unlikely to make any fundamental shift from Trumpian status quo, thereby maintaining and in some cases even developing a stronger bilateral and multilateral security and political cooperation with the countries in the region beside walking a further mile to re-engage with the high level forums in the region. Further the trend of developing stronger ties with countries having territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea is expected to follow under Biden administration. Though a full fledged military conflict between US and China in the South China Sea within four years of Biden administration is unlikely but the risk of piecemeal confrontation will persist as the US would definitely pursue their freedom of navigation under free and open Indo Pacific in the South China Sea in counter to Chinese ever rising military capabilities in the region.

Non-conventional Security

The South East Asian countries are very sensitive to the vulnerability of climate change , since a large proportion of its population and economic activity is concentrated along the coastlines. According to a study by Asian Development Bank (ADB) , the mean temperature in the region increased by 0.1 to 0.3 degree Celsius per decade between 1951 and 2000; rainfall trended downward from 1960 to 2000; and sea levels have risen 1 to 3 millimetres per year. Further the study projects a 4.8 degree celsius rise in mean annual temperature and a 70 centimetres rise in mean sea level by 2100 in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Also according to the study, the economic losses include a decline up to 50% of rice yield potential by 2100 and a loss of 6.7% of combined gross domestic product ( GDP ) each year by 2100. The US under Joe Biden reiterated his commitment of re-joining the landmark Paris Agreement once he takes charge of the office. Biden also pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 which will put US climate ambition on par with the EU, UK, France, South Korea and Japan. As the world’s leading polluter , the US setting a 2050 target would also mean that other countries too would commit themselves to end greenhouse gas emissions sooner. On international commitment too, Biden promises to lead a major diplomatic push to raise global climate ambition. On this front Biden is expected to collaborate with the ASEAN countries. Though many ASEAN countries are not the source of major greenhouse gas emissions, but have committed themselves to address climate change through various environmental, economic and social activities over the years. Also  several countries of ASEAN have announced voluntary mitigation targets, including Indonesia (emission reduction of 26% from business as usual (BAU ) by 2020 and can be increased 41% with enhanced international assistance), Malaysia (reduction of 40% in terms of energy intensity of GDP by 2020 compared to 2005 levels), Philippines (deviate by 20% from BAU of their emission growth path), Singapore( emission reduction of 16 % below BAU by 2020). Many countries of the region have mainstreamed their climate change adaptations in development planning. An administration under Biden would foresee both the US and ASEAN jointly push climatic targets in world climate summit through enforceable international agreements to reduce emissions. However, it remains to be seen if the ASEAN countries are comfortable with Biden’s plan of setting carbon tariffs on imports which will unfairly affects these countries. On this Biden’s plan , overall the ASEAN countries will rely on WTO compliance for future course of action with regard to it with the US.


Human Rights

The US under Biden is expected to establish human rights as a strong pillar of foreign policymaking. Unlike Trump administration, this new administration tends to portray a strong value-based diplomacy of the US. The South East Asian region is the hub of multiple human rights crisis. The US under Biden will definitely find it at the crossroad whether dealing with violent suppression of student rallies in Thailand or Rohingya crisis of Myanmar or Hun Sen’s crackdown in Cambodia or Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial ongoing war against drugs, on one hand, to showcase US perfectionism to the world and at the same time to counter Chinese influence in the region by elevating political ties with respective nations on the other hand. But it is without a doubt that any further escalation of human rights violation in the region would pressurise Biden administration to hold accountable and exemplify its substance so as to check any trickle down effect of authoritarian tendency. 

The US under Joe Biden will definitely continue to formulate its policies on South East Asia centred around China. With economically and militarily rising China as the elephant in the Asian bloc, the South East Asian nations would like to preserve their independence. With China as the next big hegemon, the ASEAN countries would like to optimize the benefits by maintaining relation with both the US and China. However, the growing intense geopolitical rivalry between the US and China would make it difficult for the  ASEAN countries to maintain its balancing act, which is certainly a difficult task in days to come.

**The author is pursuing MA in Political Science from Dibrugarh University**