Source Asia Sentinel

SACRAMENTO, U.S.--The Biden White House has issued its strategy outline for the Asia-Pacific Region. But while the paper is long on platitudes about re-engagement, it is short on specifics and addresses one element – strengthening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – which seems pure fantasy.

It delivers an unusually belligerent challenge to Beijing, charging that “the PRC’s coercion and aggression span the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior.”

China, it says, “is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”

Beyond the saber-rattling, the single most specific point in the 19-page document, titled “The Indo-Pacific Strategy of The United States” and issued on February 12, is the importance now attached to India and its importance to the wider region, not just South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Washington, it says, “supports continued rise and regional leadership” seeing it as increasingly connected to Southeast Asia, as the driving force of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, adding its weight to US traditional regional allies Japan and Australia.

Indeed, the Quad itself is seen as a continuing agreement to be strengthened as a “premier regional grouping,” including playing a leading role in combating the Covid-19 coronavirus and other global health issues – though it has done little enough so far on that front. It also sees the Quad cooperating in areas such as sharing satellite data on maritime issues – a clear hint to countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam which want to keep the US at arm’s length but want access to its information in protecting their seas.

Whether the Quad has such a future and can cooperate with non-members in the region in opposing China’s ambitions remains to be seen. But it is hard to take seriously the contention that the US can do much to “strengthen an empowered and unified ASEAN.” Indeed, ASEAN has become increasingly feeble, its need for consensus proving it incapable of doing more than talk about issues such as the South China Sea and the Myanmar military coup.

Nor is there much attention given to ASEAN’s most important member, economically and strategically, Indonesia, despite its greater success than most fellow members in maintaining other key US objectives – democracy and pluralism.

It does promise to work “with partners inside and outside of the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people.”

But, it says, “As we do so, our approach remains consistent with our One China policy and our longstanding commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances – a recognition that the agreement enunciated between then-President Richard Nixon and then-Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1972 remains in force in the wake of Donald Trump’s aggressive befriending of Taipei.

The importance of Japan and South Korea, and the relationship between those two, is no surprise. But there is almost no mention of the one key item which dominates so much discourse in East Asia – trade. Donald Trump’s presidency trashed longstanding US trade relations with the region, most specifically abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which had been President Barack Obama’s way of re-engaging the US in the region after years of unproductive focus on the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Eleven years in the making during the presidencies of both George W Bush and Obama, the TPP knit together 12 littoral Pacific nations together to ring-fence China with an agreement to lower both tariff and non-tariff barriers and was designed to reduce the signatories' dependence on Chinese trade and bring the signatories closer to the US orbit. With Biden and the Democrats closely aligned with America’s trade union movement, and with the Republicans in Congress remaining in thrall to Trump, there appears no way forward for the US to return to the 50-year trade liberalization policies that Washington pursued from the end of World War II.

Thus, the main beneficiary of Trump’s policy in withdrawing from the TPP remains China. Yet while this strategy paper’s underlying theme is to limit China’s expansionism, it fails to offer any trade agenda whatsoever beyond a few sentences of empty rhetoric saying the US “will develop new approaches to trade that meet high labor and environmental standards and will govern our digital economies and cross-border data flows according to open principles, including through a new digital economy framework” while working with our partners “to advance resilient and secure supply chains that are diverse, open, and predictable, while removing barriers and improving transparency and information-sharing.”

But in fact, every indication is that instead of “advancing resilient and secure supply chains,” the Biden administration’s domestic industrial policy is to bring back production onshore and attempt to re-industrialize the US through its “build back better” policy, most of which has already been thwarted by Republicans in the Congress.

Meanwhile, China is likely to prove the major beneficiary of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which includes ASEAN, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – but from which India stood aloof, fearful of China’s industrial competitiveness.

RCEP trade gains may be slow to eventuate but the pact is significant.

Meanwhile, the reconstituted TPP, which covers non-tariff barriers and other trade and investment issues in addition to merchandise trade, went ahead without the US, albeit in watered-down form. Now China wants to join and the US does not have a policy because of domestic political opposition.

Although such trade agreements often look more important than they are in practice, the White House paper shows the disconnect between US strategic and trade policies.