Vice President Harris’ Trip to Southeast Asia is Well-Timed…and Overdue

On August 22, Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Singapore on the first leg of a trip to Southeast Asia. After meeting with Singaporean leaders, Vice President Harris traveled to Vietnam. Her second international trip since taking office is designed to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the geopolitically important region. Central to this reaffirmation is the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen U.S. engagement in the face of China’s growing global influence. Deeper engagement with the governments in the region is increasingly important to the United States’ long-term interests in the Indo-Pacific as China looks to gain more influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

The Indo-Pacific region has long been one of strategic importance to the United States. Early in his time in the White House, President Barack Obama introduced a shift in U.S. foreign policy, referred to as the pivot to Asia. This pivot was intended to “directly engage[ing] China, prop[ping] up Chinese rivals Japan and India, and figure[ing] out the North Korea situation” while transitioning  away from the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. Of particular interest is the South China Sea, a primary source of tension between China, which has built up its naval presence and military capabilities in the sea, and several countries in Southeast Asia, which has competing claims.  Following his former boss’s policy, Biden is working to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a new era focused primarily on Asia and, specifically, the great power rivalry with China. As a piece of the Biden administration’s broader Asia strategy and in light of recent events in the region and worldwide, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast is well-timed and overdue.

Stop Ignoring Us!

The countries in Southeast Asia embraced the news of Vice President Harris’ trip to the region. Several countries have expressed disappointment over the lack of engagement from the Biden administration. In fact, the United States’ allies and partners in Southeast Asia were largely ignored by the Trump administration. For Biden, who has promised to work with American allies, Southeast Asia feels very much left out of that promise, as the countries in Southeast Asia “hardly figure on Biden’s diplomatic agenda.” In the first several months of Biden’s tenure, his foreign policy has focused primarily on countering China and on U.S. treaty allies, including Japan and South Korea. However, as President Biden is quickly realizing, the countries in Southeast Asia are critical to his overall foreign policy objective: countering China. Thus, Vice President Harris’ trip to Vietnam and Singapore was well-timed and, one could argue, overdue.

The Afghan Withdrawal Reaches Throughout the Region

The abrupt U.S. withdrawal and difficulties in safely evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan has caused much of the world to question the United States’ credibility and reliability as an international partner. Much like the United States’ North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies who fought alongside the United State throughout the entire war, the United States’ allies and partners in Asia are also asking this question.

Washington’s perception is that the countries in Southeast Asia have gradually drifted away from the United States in favor of closer ties with China. This fear is compounded by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with accusations that the United States has abandoned its NATO allies but also triggered criticism that the United States also left its Afghan allies, those who worked with and for the U.S. government during the war, high and dry. Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is well-timed, as well as overdue, as it presents an opportunity for the United States to quell its allies and partners concerns about U.S. reliability and reassure the region that the United States is deeply committed to its security and prosperity in its efforts to counter China, which is a lynchpin of Biden’s foreign policy.

And then there was China…

Lastly, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is a play in the Biden administration’s playbook for reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward the great power rivalry with China. In fact, the primary reason behind the abrupt and bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan was so the Biden administration may do just that: focus on what President Biden has referred to as the United States’ primary national security threat. Countering growing China’s expansion into the region, including the South China Sea, remains one of the Biden administration’s top priorities and is a central piece into the United States’ broader Asia strategy. By traveling to the region, Vice President Harris is laying the groundwork for broadening that strategy, and the first step is to reassure the United States’ allies and partners in the region as they will prove to be critical to the United States’ efforts to counter China.

Conclusion

Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia was a necessary and strategically timed trip. U.S. allies and partners in the region have expressed frustration over the lack of one-on-one engagement since Biden took office. Additionally, the abrupt and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted many across the world, including allies and partners in Southeast Asia, to question U.S. reliability and credibility. Moreover, the Biden administration has placed China at the center of his foreign policy, which greatly impacts the Southeast Asian region. As a result, it was imperative that the United States reassure its Southeast Asian allies and partners of the Biden administration’s commitment to the region and the strategic importance these countries play in U.S. foreign policy.

Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe

On June 9, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. set off for a trip to Europe with stops in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland. While in the United Kingdom, President Biden, an avowed Atlanticist, attended a Group of 7 (G-7) meeting on the first leg of the trip and also met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then, he traveled to Brussels to meet with leaders from the other 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then attended a summit with leaders from the European Union (EU), including the Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission. On the last day of the trip, President Biden met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

Credit: Flickr

Before boarding Air Force One, President Biden published an op ed in the New York Times, where he stated that “this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” In short, the purpose of his European trip was three-fold: show America’s European allies that the United States is back, get on the same page with the Europeans about China, and put guardrails on the U.S. relationship with Russia.  

The G-7 Meeting

President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the G-7 countries in Cornwall, a small coastal town in the United Kingdom, was relatively fruitful. Number one on his agenda was getting the United States’ closest European allies (including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), Canada, and Japan to agree on the threat that a rising China poses, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 meeting was the first attempt by leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to counter the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China lends and invests money to countries across Africa, Latin America, and now Europe. As a result, the G-7 leaders began discussions on designing a similar program called Build Back Better for the World.

Beyond direct concerns about China, the G-7 leaders announced several other initiatives. For one, the leaders of the G-7 committed to donating more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. The G-7 leaders also pledged to cutting their collective carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed to imposing a minimum 15 percent corporate tax.

The Special Relationship

While in the United Kingdom, President Biden met with Prime Minister Johnson for their first in person get-together. In a meeting designed to “affirm the special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, the two leaders introduced an updated Atlantic Charter based off the one signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941.

The two leaders revised the 80-year-old charter, originally created to ensure the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” to include present day threats like cyberattacks, election interference, pandemics, and climate change. Above all, the meeting between the two leaders was to “redefine the Western alliance” in the face of a global ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, led by China and Russia.

President Biden took the time to raise concerns over Northern Ireland. He worries that Prime Minister Johnson will destabilize the Good Friday peace agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in his Brexit dealings. President Biden publicly asserted during his campaign that it was imperative that the Good Friday Agreement not “become a casualty” of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson, who is eager to show off the United Kingdom’s newly branded post-Brexit plans called Global Britain, has not so subtly made his hopes known for a trade deal with the United States as a way to calm the nerves of his citizens in post-Brexit Britain. However, President Biden echoed his former boss when he declared that a trade deal between the two countries would hinge on the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country which is still part of the EU.

NATO Summit

After the G-7 meeting, President Biden and his team traveled to Brussels for summits with leaders of NATO and the EU. At a pivotal point in alliance history, President Biden made sure to alleviate his NATO pals’ anxiety after four turbulent years of American leadership under the Trump administration.

In this vein, President Biden met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and held meetings with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to hear concerns about Russia’s threat to NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO, during this summit, targeted Russia due to its aggressive military activity and wargames along NATO’s borders. Moreover, for the first time in alliance history, NATO mentioned China in its final communique, calling the communist nation a “constant security challenge” and recognized that China is trying to weaken the global order.  

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden recommitted to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. “Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” he affirmed. He also acknowledged the apprehension of America’s NATO allies: “I want NATO to know America is here.” His attendance and actions at the NATO summit were intended to reassure NATO allies that the United States is, in fact, back.

Let’s Talk Turkey

While in Brussels for the NATO summit, President Biden met individually with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time when Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe are quite tense, President Erdogan has considerable leverage over his Western allies. However, President Erdogan’s continued authoritarian tendencies have not helped the situation, and neither have his efforts to balance relations with Russia, NATO’s archenemy, particularly over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Through the first few months of his administration, President Biden has “given [President] Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder.” Biden called the Turkish president for the first time in April, only to state that he was officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This decision angered President Erdogan profoundly, calling the decision a “deep wound” in the relationship, and has reinforced his fear that the United States wants to replace him. However, besides publicly stating his frustration, President Erdogan did not retaliate, suggesting he wants to establish a good relationship with Mr. Biden and the United States.

As the two leaders met, the Biden administration is looking to sidestep the disagreements over the purchase of Russian S-400s, Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the animosity between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, both NATO allies. As Politico points out, there is “little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high”; it looks like tensions will likely remain high for the next few years.

US-EU Summit

On his next stop of his European trip, President Biden attended a summit with EU leaders. During the summit, President Biden noted the importance of the United States’ relationship with both NATO and the EU and stressed the importance of collaboration, stating that working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes.” President Biden and the EU agreed to remove tariffs on goods like EU wine and US tobacco and spirits, imposed in a row over mutual frustration over subsidies for Boeing, a U.S. company, and its European rival, Airbus, ending a dispute over the aircraft subsidies that last for 17 years.

There is one area of disagreement between the US and the EU on trade. In 2018, the Trump administration arbitrarily placed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, citing national security grounds. During the summit, the EU lifted the retaliatory tariffs on US steel and aluminum for six months, with hopes that the United States would reciprocate. However, President Biden did not commit to lifting the punitive tariffs. Despite this sensitive topic, President Biden went into the summit with EU leaders “seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China” at a time when the to adversaries are working to undermine the Transatlantic alliance.  

A Worth Adversary

On his final stop in Geneva, Biden met with Russian President Putin. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War and have only worsened in the first few months of the Biden administration. Russia’s significant cyberthreat, continued interference in U.S. and allied governments’ elections, a massive build up of forces along the Ukrainian border, and the horrendous treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the main sources of poor relations.

President Biden requested the meeting, which was a bit surprising after he called Mr. Putin “a killer” earlier this year. But, as the administration pointed out, President Biden has no intention of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia. Instead, analysts agree the purpose of the meeting was to avoid tensions with Russia in order to be able to concentrate on his ever-growing domestic agenda to-do list. In the meeting, it looks like Biden wanted to put guardrails on the relationship and to find areas of compromise, which is increasingly becoming a theme in Biden’s foreign policy.

The summit was not all symbols and speculation. In separate press conferences, President Biden said he raised the issue of Russia violating Mr. Navalny’s human rights as well as Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries referred to the summit as “constructive” and “positive,” and voiced their hopes of a better relationship, agreeing to restore ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow and discussed areas of cooperation and mutual interest, including Afghanistan and the Arctic. The summit was not meant to reset relations between the two countries, but it did seem to fulfill Biden’s initial purpose: making known to the Russian leader that the United States will not back down.

The Uighurs, Allies, and China

Since 2017, China has clamped down on the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjiang region of China. Beijing justifies such actions as concerns about terrorism, extremism, and the Uighur independence movement. In what many in the United States and Europe have labeled as genocide, China rejects the notion that that the Uighurs are subject to any human rights abuses.

However, estimates predict that more than 1 million Uighurs were detained in Chinese re-education camps. Some former Uighur detainees reported that, during their time in detention, they were forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and to be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Others have shared that China is using torture as well as “forced sterilization…and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.” These unspeakable state-sanctioned actions certainly constitute genocide.

The U.S. and Its Allies Act

On March 22, in response to the genocidal conditions that the Uighur ethnic group and others are suffering at the hands of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang province, the United States, in concert some of its closest allies – the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada – imposed sanctions on China for its human right violations. What is the significance about the United States and its allies’ recent imposition of sanctions against China? It fits in neatly with what President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced as the fundamental features of his administration’s foreign policy..

On February 4, Biden delivered the first foreign policy speech of his new presidency. In this speech, Biden spoke of several themes that would guide his foreign policy, including placing re-establishing diplomacy at the core of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, repairing U.S. alliances, and returning to multilateralism. The imposition of sanctions on China for its human right abuses against the Uighurs embodies almost every facet of Biden’s vision for his foreign policy.

Diplomacy and American Democratic Values

In his February 4 speech, Biden remarked, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He further asserted that the United States’ return to diplomacy must be “rooted in American’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” By announcing the imposition of new sanctions against China for its human rights abuses against the Uighurs, the United States has done exactly what Biden promised: placed diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal treatment of the Uighurs also secures Biden’s pledge that American democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy. By taking a stand against Beijing for these human right abuses, the United States is making clear not just to China, but to the world, that its foreign policy will be driven by its democratic values, including human rights, and that the United States will call out those who are violating its values.

Coordination with U.S. Allies and A Return to Multilateralism

On February 4, Biden emphatically stated that “America’s alliances are our greatest assets, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” After several years of angering and alienating America’s allies under the Trump administration’s America First motto, Biden noted the importance of rebuilding relationships with the United States’ key allies to counter global challenges. “We can’t do it alone,” Biden further emphasized, signaling the importance of rebuilding the United States’ alliances in order to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy.

And this is exactly what the Biden administration accomplished when coordinating with the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union to impose sanctions on China. Not only did the United States pursue this action through diplomatic channels, but the United States also coordinated with some of its closest allies in order to address a mutual threat to their security and values. By imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal behavior toward the Uighurs, the United States capitalized on what the Biden administration recognizes as its greatest assets – its alliances – and this will only help in his quest of restoring those relationships.

The United States’ imposition of sanctions on China in concert with some of its closest, like-minded allies also indicates how important multilateralism is to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Though the United States did not work directly through an international organization, like the United Nations, the Biden administration pursued a course of diplomacy through the imposition of sanctions, using a well-deliberated and well-orchestrated action in concert with its closest allies instead of acting impulsively, ineffectively, or unliterally. This action was the epitome of multilateral cooperation.

Conclusion

The horrendous treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province at the hands of the Chinse government is undoubtedly a massive violation of the Uighurs’ human rights. By imposing sanctions on the Chinese government in coordination with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada, the Biden administration is fulfilling its promises of returning diplomacy and American values at the center of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, recalibrating its strained relationships with its closest allies, and resuming its commitment to multilateralism.

The Liberal World Order and the U.S. Alliance System: A Very Short History

After the Second World War ended in 1945, much of the world lay in ruins. After enduring a war that spanned nearly the entire globe, the loss of roughly 75 million people, and that cost trillions of dollars in damage, world leaders formed a system of international organizations and agreements to foster cooperation in the post-war world – the liberal international order. The liberal world order, which has governed much of international relations for more than 70 years, works to propagate democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights.

As part of the liberal world order, the United States built a system of alliances in Europe and Asia, which have formed “the backbone of the liberal international order for more than 70 years.” The primary purpose of the alliance system was to maintain the balance of power on those continents against the United States’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. These efforts resulted in a series of formal treaty alliances based on collective defense.

U.S. Alliances in Europe

The European continent was nearly devastated after the Second World War. The United States, realizing that communism could potentially spill over into Europe, was instrumental in helping its Western European allies rebuild, particularly through the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the Truman Doctrine. In this vein, in 1949, the United States, along with ten Western European countries and Canada, founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. This multilateral alliance was created to counter and combat the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communism throughout Europe and, to this day, serves as the center of European security.

The NATO alliance has endured quite a bit in its existence. NATO experienced “the transformation of the European security system from East-West confrontation to a Western-centric post-Cold War, during which NATO conducted its first shooting war in the Balkans [in the 1990s].” After that, NATO participated in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, a conflict in Somalia, among other involvements, and increased its membership total nearly two-fold.

While several countries joined NATO between the early 1950s and late 1990s, much of NATO’s expansion took place in 1999 and 2004, when ten former Soviet satellite states joined the alliance. Since the revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the desire of Central and Eastern European countries to join NATO increased dramatically.

While there were and remain some divisions between the NATO member states on expanding membership to these countries, NATO continued to expand. The idea behind this expansion was that membership would promote peace and stability in Europe, particularly among those in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, there are 30 NATO members states. Future expansion is constantly debated within the alliance and is the primary cause of tensions between the alliance and Russia. NATO recently announced that the alliance will be shifting its focus to the rise of China as well.

U.S. Alliances in Asia

Much like Europe, Asia was also ravaged by the Second World War. As a result, the United States established alliances with key partners in the region. In what is referred to as the hub-and-spokes system, the United States, through its bilateral alliances in Asia, had the same goal of countering the Soviet Union and its desire to spread communism.

For one, in 1952, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia signed a mutual defense treaty. Interestingly, New Zealand is no longer included in the formal treaty due to U.S. concerns over its nuclear policies in the 1980s. However, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends, just not formal allies. Australia is often referred to as one of the United States’ closest allies in Asia.

Moreover, the United States and Japan evolved from mortal enemies in the Second World War to close allies through the signing of the Treaty of Japan in 1951. Japan remains the United States’ closest ally in Asia. The United States also signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea after the end of the Korean War in 1953, with a pledge that both sides would defend one another in the event of an attack.

The United States also has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippines, formerly a U.S. territory after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, signed a treaty in 1951. The United States and Thailand were both signatories of the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Though the group disbanded in 1977, the Manila Pact outlines the U.S. security commitments to Thailand.

The United States and Taiwan were also formal allies when the U.S. signed a defense treaty with the Republic of China. This changed, however, when the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government in 1979. Consequently, there are no security guarantees. Yet, the United States sells arms to Taiwan, much to China’s consternation. While the United States no longer has formal alliances with Taiwan and New Zealand, it still maintains alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand with a renewed focus on the rise of China.

Conclusion

After the Second World War, with much of the world in ruins, world leaders established the liberal world order. A major part of this order was the United States’ alliance system, designed to maintain the balance of power in Europe and Asia and counter the Soviet Union, its primary adversary. Over the past seven decades, these alliances have formed the backbone of the liberal world order and stand strong today.

Assuaging U.S. Allies in Asia

*This post is final in a series exploring what America’s allies in Asia can expect from the Biden administration and the regional concern about China’s recent assertive behavior.*

U.S. Alliances in Asia

At the end of World War II, the United States established a system of bilateral, treaty-based alliances[1] in the Asia-Pacific region designed to “contain communism in the region.” These alliances involve a “shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks.” In short, these allies are ones that the United States is willing (and obligated by the treaty) to defend if that ally is attacked.

Beyond those formal defense alliances, the United States also formed and maintained close and strategic partnerships with several other countries in Asia, most importantly, India. Through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world, the United States has maintained these strategic alliances and partnerships to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and to meet regional and global challenges head on. 

Credit: #PACOM
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussing Japanese and South Korean partnerships.

The Trump Years

U.S. relations with its key partners were largely bumpy during the Trump administration. Former President Trump castigated Japan and South Korea, demanding that the two allies pay more because the United States posts U.S. troops in those countries as part of the security alliances. This, in turn, caused these key allies to worry that  whether America’s commitment to them is conditional. Conversely, some in Asia appreciated Trump’s tougher stance on China and the fact that he tried to engage with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s nuclear program, with little to no results.

Trump further damaged U.S. ties to the region by removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and further scorning the “open, multilateral trading regimes that have buoyed Asia’s economic success.” As the Economist observes, “Never has America’s ability to underpin Asia’s stability and prosperity been so doubted by the region’s leadership and policymakers as over the past four years.”

The Biden Administration

President Joe Biden began his new administration by contacting the leaders of the United States’ key allies and partners in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. He reiterated his commitment to the bilateral relationships. Consequently, these countries have all signaled eagerness to work with the Biden administration and want to work with the United States to counter what they view as the most pressing issues in their region: the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior throughout the region. 

China’s Aggressive Behavior in the Asia-Pacific Region

China’s political, economic, and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has increased in recent years. From sending ships to put pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to its crackdown in Hong Kong or its territorial disputes in the South China Sea to its recent incursion of war planes over Taiwan to its genocidal repression of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, China’s behavior is, one could argue, aggressive.

Most of the United States’ allies and partners have expressed concern over this growing assertiveness. As a result, the Biden administration has “stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.” Scott Campbell, a member of the Center of Strategic Studies aptly described Biden’s approach: “China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy.” This is evidenced by the commitments and reassurances that Biden made when reaching out to its key allies and partners in Asia.

Japan

Japan views China as a threat to its security. In fact, Japan is “actively promoting military and economic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise.” During his conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden confirmed his commitment to “provide extended deterrence to Japan,” including affirming that the U.S.-Japan security treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, which both Japan and China claim.  

South Korea

South Korea’s relationship with China has been largely civil and even prosperous. What concerns South Korea is China’s continued relations with North Korea. China is essentially North Korea’s lifeline in a world where it has been very isolated, serving as North Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner. This causes grave concern to South Korea due to the North’s unchecked nuclear program and a desire to reunite the Korean peninsula. Recognizing this vulnerability, Biden spoke of bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” 

Australia

Australia has also voiced concerns about China’s regional behavior and has participated in a few diplomatic spats with Beijing. In his recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Biden, much like with South Korea and Japan, reiterated the importance of the alliance and discussed how the two allies can tackle the global challenges that face them, including the rise of China. After speaking with Biden, Morrison tweeted, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the U.S.

India

India is also enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospect of U.S.-Indian relations during the Biden administration, particularly in the face of China’s recent aggression. “China is the big elephant in the room,” noted an Indian writer and analyst. Long-existing tensions between India and China came to a head last summer when the armies from each side lined up along the disputed border in the Himalaya Mountains. Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart, promising to build upon the relationship and collaborate on global challenges.

The “Quad”

One multilateral forum with which the United States and its allies has countered a rising China is through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Originally formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a tsunami devastated countries in the Indian Ocean, Australia pulled out in 2007. The Quad was rehabilitated in 2017, expanding into military and economic areas as a result of the rise of China. The Biden administration has signaled to its allies will not be soft on China and will likely continue to use the Quad as a means of countering China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

China’s rising assertiveness in Asia is a recognized challenge by the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Countering China’s assertiveness remain be at the center of the Biden administration’s approach and includes reassuring U.S. allies and partners that the United States will cooperate and consult with them on what has been mutually agreed upon as the most pressing issue in the region: China’s increasingly assertive behavior.


[1] In the aftermath of World War II, the United States signed defense treaties with the following countries: The Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed on September 8, 1951; Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) on September 1, 1951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Philippines on August 30, 2951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953; and the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (Thailand) on September 8, 1954. Currently, the United States has five treaty alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance was suspended in the mid-1989s as a result of New Zealand’s nuclear policies. Today, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends but no longer formal allies. The United States and Taiwan were once allied under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of China, signed December 2, 1954. That treaty was terminated by the United States in1979 as a result of the U.S. decision to switch official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act now guides U.S, -Taiwan relations and was enacted on April 10, 1979 to ensure that the United States would continue to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the People’s Republic of China.

The Transatlantic Alliance

*This post is second in a series exploring what America’s allies in Europe can expect from the Biden administration.*

In line with his campaign promises and recent foreign policy speech, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is seeking to repair U.S. alliances, specifically those in Europe. In this effort, Biden reached out to the U.S.’s primary allies in Europe: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden recognizes that good relations with its European  allies are key to the U.S restoring its global leadership and confronting the global challenges facing both the U.S. and its European allies.

U.S.-European Relations

U.S.-European relations, which include the relationships between the United States and NATO, the European Union (EU), and bilateral relations with individual countries, have long been close, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, the Trump administration was extremely critical and often mistreated the United States’ European allies.

Credit: Mrowlinson

Much to Europe’s chagrin, Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and rebuffed multilateralism and participation in international organizations and treaties that the Europe has grown accustomed to seeing from its American partners. Trump also imposed tariffs on the EU. He labeled the organization as a “foe” and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” Worse of all, Europe questioned whether they could rely on their partner across the Atlantic.

Most European leaders were relieved, and even rejoiced, at the news that Biden won the November 2020 election. While most European leaders are approaching the U.S. with cautious optimism, they also acknowledge that relations will improve vastly. Biden has made improving relation with its European allies as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two sides will not agree on every issue. In fact, there are likely several issues that will monopolize U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration.

Iran

In 2015, the United States, in concert with the P5+1, and Iran signed a deal designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018 for two reasons: lack of permanence in the deal and because the deal did not include Iran’s regional aggression, including ballistic missile development and support for militant groups around the region. Trump subsequently imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, angering his European allies.

Regrettably, Iran advanced its nuclear program since the U.S. withdrawal. As a result, Biden has noted his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, but Europe recognizes it will not be quite as easy as that. The United States’ potential reentry into the deal will be an issue that occupies U.S.-European relations during the Biden administration.

China

The rise of China is another issue that will likely absorb both the United States and Europe’s attention over the next four years. The High Representative of the European Union recently noted that the United States and Europe are mostly aligned on China. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide. And that does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”

Most important for Europe is not being caught in the middle of a “trade battle” between the U.S. and China. And yet, the EU negotiated a new trade deal with China at the end of 2020, with the assumption that engaging with Beijing is the most effective means of altering its behavior.

The timing of the deal, however, frustrated the incoming Biden administration weeks away from taking office, hoping that Europe would consult with them first. But the EU went ahead with the deal anyway. Biden has promised to consult with allies on all matter of issues related to China, but this trade deal caused Europe and the U.S. to start off on a curious footing.

European Security

Europe’s participation in providing for its own security will also demand attention on both sides. European security was a major sticking point for the Trump administration, one that will likely carry over into the Biden administration. Trump was not the first U.S. president to question whether Europe should contribute more to its own security; this was a common sentiment of former presidents as well.

European leaders, led by President Macron, have begun calling for strategic autonomy, or what Europeans call “promoting greater European independence from the United States.” Most European leaders acknowledge that Europe could play a bigger role in defending itself instead of relying primarily on the United States. For one, divisions exist between the United States and Europe, and within Europe itself, on what signifies a major challenge, depending on the audience.

Biden, despite his promised efforts to improve U.S. alliances with its European partners, is expected to encourage Europe to assume more responsibility for its own security, though taking a less draconian approach than Trump. While Biden announced that the United States would not remove U.S. troops from Germany and will take a more rational position on this issue, the degree to which Europe defends itself without relying so much on the United States is one that will dominate U.S.-European relations over the coming years.

Conclusion

One of the foundational themes of Biden’s foreign policy is improving relations with U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe. While most European leaders are happy about Biden’s election and the United States’ return to a more traditional, familiar foreign policy, they are also approaching the U.S. with caution. Relations will be much more cooperative, friendly, and smooth during the Biden administration than over the last four years; however, the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of China, and European security will likely be the focal points of U.S.-European relations under the new administration.

Secretary Blinken on U.S. Adversaries

The previous post discussed how Secretary Blinken, whom the Senate confirmed on January 26 as the next Secretary of State, would recalibrate the United States’ strained relationships with its key allies. This post is the second in a series of how Secretary Blinken would address U.S. allies and adversaries. 

U.S. Adversaries

The United States’ adversaries were another central theme throughout the hearing. During the Trump administration, the former President was often accused, beginning early in his term, of praising strongmen and admiring U.S. adversaries while treating U.S. allies poorly. The Biden administration plans to correct that. What policies toward U.S. adversaries can we expect to see over the next four years with Secretary Blinken leading the State Department?

China

China, in particular, garnered quite a bit of attention. Secretary Blinken took a hardline in his analysis of China, noting that “there is no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.” In providing his views on the world’s second largest economy, Secretary Blinken stated, “I also believe that [former] President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China.” However, he opined, “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it.”

Xi Jinping

Credit:  nznationalparty

The United States must approach China from “a position of strength.” This “position of strength,” he affirmed, included “a unified position among our democratic allies,” U.S. cooperation and coordination through international institutions, and standing up for “our values.” Despite his hardline analysis, Secretary Blinken also acknowledged that there are issues on which China and the United States can cooperate, including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Arctic Circle.

Secretary Blinken touched on the specific, more contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. Chief among those are China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic minority group in the Xinjiang province. Before leaving office, former Secretary Mike Pompeo classified China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. When asked whether he agreed with this assessment or not, Secretary Blinken replied in the affirmative.

Relatedly, Secretary Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s comment to Taiwan, stating that he would review former Secretary Pompeo’s late decision on loosening the rules which regulate how the United States can engage with Taiwanese officials. Taiwan is a particularly thorny issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and Secretary Blinken echoed seemingly bipartisan support for Taiwan in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Russia

Questions about how the Biden administration would handle Russia arose. On Russia, Secretary Blinken said the threat posed by Russia was “very high on the agenda,” signaling a sense of urgency for the new administration. Secretary Blinken promised an approach to Russia different from that of the Trump administration, which is often accused of being too lenient on Russia. This begins, Secretary Blinken observed, with seeking an extension to the New Start Treaty, that expires in early February.

Putin

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken also raised the recent detainment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from aa failed poisoning attempt last summer, with all fingers pointing to the Kremlin as the likely guilty party. Secretary Blinken expressed his support for Mr. Navalny, and drew attention to what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fear of the opposition leader: “It’s extraordinary how frightened Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.”

With respect to Russia’s larger regional and global threat, Secretary Blinken stated his strategy to continue supporting “the arming and training of Ukraine’s military, the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance and indeed, of the training program as well,” noting that he felt this program had been “a real success.” Secretary Blinken told the Senators that “I spent a lot of time on Ukraine when I was last in government” and concurred with the Senate’s desire of trying to help Ukraine and standing up to Russia in the face of the annexation in Crimea and the deteriorating situation in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Iran

Much of the disagreement” [between Republican Senators and Secretary Blinken] centered on the Biden administration’s plans surrounding Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Republicans on the Committee worry that President Biden will abandon the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Rouhani

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken stressed how the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement has actually left the United States in a weaker position and noting that Iran is closer than before the deal to acquiring nuclear weapons, highlighting that Iran has “increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and fired up its centrifuges to produce higher-grade uranium.”

Secretary Blinken pointed out that Iran “represents a greater threat if it [Iran] wields nuclear weapons or reaches the threshold of using nuclear weapons.” He echoed President Biden’s plan to reenter the nuclear deal and that he would seek a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran.

The United States is more likely to curtail Iran’s support for terrorism and proxy militias and regional antagonism, the Secretary claimed, if the nuclear weapons issue is no longer the primary issue. However, Secretary Blinken admitted that the Biden administration is “a long way from” any terms of a deal with Iran as it is too early to know what terms Iran will be willing to accept.”

North Korea

Secretary Blinken recognized North Korea as a strategic challenge for the Biden administration. He did not offer much in the way of the Biden administration’s plans or policies toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons. Secretary Blinken shared that the Biden administration would conduct a full review of the United States’ approach to North Korea in search of ways to get its leader, Kim Jong-Un, to agree to further negotiations.

Kim Jong Un

Credit: Prachatai

Simultaneously, Secretary Blinken vowed to watch the worsening humanitarian situation. “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.” What’s more, Secretary Blinken said that any actions taken on the North Korean issue would begin with close consultation with U.S. allies in Asia, specifically Japan and South Korea.

Conclusion

Similar to his perspective on the United States’ allies, the Secretary also has an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the United States, particularly in its complicated and strained relationships with its adversaries as each adversary presents a unique challenge. However, Secretary Blinken’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlighted his capability, readiness, and enthusiasm to lead the State Department and return U.S. foreign policy to a more traditional and unified foreign policy.