Biden Looks East

Despite the war in Ukraine, the president is fully focused on the challenge of a rising China, says National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

An illustration showing Biden's face appearing against the background of a Chinese flag.
The Atlantic; Alex Wong/Getty

“The single biggest strategic challenge that we face from the geopolitical perspective is the rise of China and the challenge that China poses to the rules-based international order,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told me this month. “That is a challenge that manifests in the Indo-Pacific, but also the challenge that manifests globally.”

Successive U.S. administrations over the past half century have faced similar challenges, based on the growing, virtually unavoidable recognition that America’s future lies with the nations of Asia and their expanding wealth, diplomatic clout, and technological prowess. Yet when presidents and policy makers have tried to focus on the region, some crisis erupts elsewhere in the world—in the early 2000s, the War on Terror; today, the war in Ukraine—and diverts their attention and resources. As a result, Washington’s efforts have fallen short of what Asia deserves.

According to President Joe Biden’s most senior foreign-policy aides, this administration is finally intent on setting that record straight. Somewhat under the radar, as the coronavirus pandemic’s long tail, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and inflation have dominated headlines, Biden has undertaken a series of initiatives to strengthen the U.S.’s position in the Indo-Pacific, the great, populous swath of territory spanning South Asia, East Asia, and the South Pacific. And he won’t get distracted this time. Really, his aides insist.

“The Biden administration and the senior people within it, who have seen this movie before, have basically tried to signal that even in the midst of absolutely central challenges, either in the Middle East or now in Europe, the longer-term, more sustaining convening challenge is going to be in the Indo-Pacific,” Kurt Campbell, Biden’s top Asia adviser, told me. “For the United States and for the region to continue to be prosperous and effective, it is going to require more capacity on the part of the United States, and deeper engagement.”

Driving that redoubled American engagement is “the rise of China.” As Beijing builds its power and elevates its ambition, Asia has become Washington’s principal focus in its defense of American global influence and the system of relationships, norms, and ideals that supports it.

Whether the Biden team can hold course is anything but certain in the face of mounting political and economic difficulties at home and Russian aggression abroad. (As Sullivan recently told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, an important objective of the administration is “to ensure that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is stymied in his goal to weaken and divide the West.”) If indeed it can, its Asia agenda will be a significant reworking of Washington’s traditional approach to the world.

Of course, American policy makers have hardly ignored Asia in the post–World War II era. The U.S. fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, and its partnership with China has reshaped the global economy and international politics over the past 50 years. Nevertheless, the American foreign-policy establishment was long preoccupied with Europe, the center of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, the land of oil, Islamic revolutionaries, and costly wars.

Those priorities are now out of sync with a changing world. Starting with Japan’s ascendance in the 1960s and continuing with India’s advance from the ’90s onward, Asia has produced the U.S.’s biggest challenges and its greatest opportunities. Asia is where American companies find the primary pool of new middle-class customers for their products, as well as some of the world’s most crucial manufacturing supply chains for chips, electric-vehicle batteries, and other goods indispensable to the U.S. economy.

At the same time, Asia also supplies the chief competitors to American global primacy. In the ’80s, Japan was widely predicted to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Now, America’s No. 1 rival is China. Although Putin remains a major security concern, China’s leaders are the ones with the cash and the clout to overturn Pax Americana and supplant the U.S. as the world’s premier superpower.

Washington has been slow to adjust to this new reality. President Barack Obama attempted his famous pivot to Asia, expanding his personal engagement with numerous Asian countries, stationing troops in Australia, and promoting U.S. membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation economic and trade agreement. To the Australian Parliament in 2011, Obama spoke of a “broader shift” in America’s direction: “I have … made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

But, as David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently put it, “all too often … the United States has failed to pair this ambitious rhetoric with policies that reflected the region’s importance.” Consumed by chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and too hesitant to confront Beijing’s threatening behavior—above all, its militarization of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of as its own territory—Obama’s pivot was, at best, a first step rather than a fundamental transition. President Donald Trump sabotaged that initiative by withdrawing the U.S. from the TPP immediately upon taking office. After that, the leaders of Asia seemed to move on without Washington. (A rebranded TPP agreement was eventually completed without U.S. participation.)

Trump engineered his own version of an Asian pivot, overturning orthodox U.S. policy toward China. Out went hopes of continued engagement; in came superpower competition. Although Trump fixated on his trade war with Beijing, and his confrontational stance toward China came to dominate Washington’s agenda, he himself largely ignored the rest of the region—with the exception of the love letters exchanged with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator.

The Biden team has adopted a pragmatic approach—borrowing parts of Trump’s tough line on China, reenergizing Obama’s regional diplomacy, and mixing in ideas of its own—to create a concerted new campaign of Asian diplomacy. The U.S. president has upgraded U.S. participation in the Quad, a security partnership with Australia, Japan, and India, by holding regular conferences with its leaders. Last year, Biden forged a defense arrangement with the United Kingdom and Australia to provide nuclear submarine technology to the Australian military. In the nonmilitary arena, Biden hosted in May in Washington a first-ever summit with leaders of Southeast Asian countries; then, on a visit to Tokyo, he launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, a commercial pact with, initially, a dozen countries across the region. This month, the U.S. administration opened trade negotiations with Taiwan.

Biden’s national security adviser, Sullivan, stressed to me that the president’s plan was no mere reboot of Obama’s pivot. “One of the things that distinguishes the Biden approach is the strategic linkage seen between our engagements and our relationships in Europe and the Middle East with our strategic position in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. He pointed, for instance, to June’s NATO summit (which was the first attended by the leaders of America’s main allies in the Asia-Pacific region: Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand). He also cited an effort by the European Union to increase its involvement in the region. Both initiatives, Sullivan said, were signs of new connections forming between America’s partners in the East and its allies in the West.

“It’s not pivoting away from one to another, but enhancing our position in all,” Sullivan added. “Because in doing so, it has a reverberating effect, especially in the Indo-Pacific.”

Biden’s efforts have not gone unappreciated in the region. I spoke with Shashi Tharoor, a member of India’s Parliament who once served as minister of state for external affairs. With the onset of the war in Ukraine, “we wondered if that would distract the U.S. and take its mind toward Europe much more,” he told me. “But it doesn’t look as if the Biden administration has taken its eye off the Asian ball.”

Yet there are growing fears, both in the region and in the U.S., that Washington’s heightened competition with China in Asia is increasing the risk of conflict between the powers. The ruckus that Chinese leaders raised when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this month was a case in point. In response, the People’s Liberation Army staged extensive military exercises all around the island, which Beijing considers part of China.

“It’s too early to tell,” Sullivan told me, if those events will result in a long-term change in the Taiwan standoff, but, “what is clear is that China would like to alter the status quo in ways that we think are destabilizing.” That, he said, could “include how its military operates within the Taiwan Strait and around the island of Taiwan.”

Sullivan also affirmed that Biden’s strategy “does mean an elevated military presence” in the Indo-Pacific. The Pentagon is already planning upgrades to bases in Australia and elsewhere in the region.

“We believe that we can accomplish both an enhanced [military] presence on the eastern flank of NATO and an enhanced presence in the air, undersea, and on the sea in the Pacific,” Sullivan said, “because actually we are drawing from different elements of American power.”

The possibility of escalating U.S.-China conflict leaves many in the region queasy. “To many people, it seems the U.S. wants to pull China down to the extent that they can, that China is getting too big, too uncomfortable,” George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore, told me. “It’s a great insecurity of the U.S. that China will overtake it, even displace it, as the top dog in the world.” A better approach, he counsels, is “a constructive relationship, one where you sit down and say, ‘Look, these are the issues we have, and let’s talk. Let’s find a way to compromise and find a way forward.’”

The Biden administration counters that the purpose of its Asian engagement is not to contain China. “For the United States, our most important effort must be in demonstrating that we will work with allies and partners to sustain what I would call the operating system of the Indo-Pacific,” Campbell, Biden’s Asia-policy adviser, said. “That operating system has been very effective, and it has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity.”

Still, from Washington’s perspective, the path of conciliation with China has become difficult. In response to the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, Beijing cut off high-level talks on military and other issues. But the White House insists that dialogue remains an important part of its Asia agenda. The two sides are working toward a face-to-face summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping that is expected to take place later this year.

“There are going to be elements and periods in the U.S.-China relationship that will be unpredictable,” Campbell said, “and that’s why a huge focus in our administration is building confidence-building mechanisms, crisis communications, things that could be described as guardrails, in a system in which the potential for miscalculation or inadvertence is real.”

Sullivan had a similar message. “There is plenty of reason to believe that both sides have the capacity, if they can summon the will, to compete vigorously but to do so within guardrails and to ensure that competition does not turn into conflict, and also, at the same time, to work together on issues,” he said. “We ought to be able to find an operating tempo with China where we can expect to manage the competition in a way that sustains stability and gives a sense to the region and the world that this thing is not a downward spiral.”

“But a lot of that is up to Beijing,” he added.

How far Biden can advance his approach in Asia is also uncertain. He may be constrained by politics back home, either in compromising with China—a hard line on Beijing is a rare point of bipartisan consensus—or in engaging with the region more broadly.

The negotiations for his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, for example, will focus on standard-setting for digital business, secure supply chains, and other important areas of regional commerce. Campbell insisted that “elements of this framework include things that will matter a lot in the 21st century.” But they will not tackle traditional trade issues such as tariff reduction and market opening. To give way on those would be to risk aggravating anti-trade sentiment in the U.S.

“Everyone will say, ‘Yes, it is very good,’ and we will go along, and then they wait to see how much substance there is,” Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister, said. But he added, “I don’t think it amounts to much. If you take free trade out from the economic framework, what do you have?”

Undaunted, the Biden White House believes that the U.S. can not only compete with China in Asia but ultimately win out. “There has been a kind of inertia around the assumptions of what is going to happen that is not factoring in developments that are running in favor of the American position and adverse to the PRC position,” Sullivan said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “The notion that [the Chinese] are going to achieve some kind of hegemony, or that the region is going to welcome some kind of hegemony from China, is implausible.”

The greatest challenge facing the U.S. may be the ambivalence of many of Asia’s leaders. On the one hand, they still see American influence in their region as a necessary counterweight to China. On the other hand, they don’t want to alienate Beijing. That means Biden has to play a delicate diplomatic game.

No country wants “to be wholly dependent on China,” Yeo said. “So the U.S. is naturally, naturally welcome.” Equally, he warned, the U.S. should not overplay its hand. “If the U.S. forces a choice, I don’t think the answer will be what the U.S. will like.”