Despite credit given to Donald Trump for toughening US policy toward China and even trying a new approach to North Korea, his approach to the Indo-Pacific was roundly condemned for: poor choice of officials and little coordination; disruption of alliances with distrust of multilateralism; discordant messages with idiosyncratic goals; and little presidential presence or articulation of values. Attentive to mounting challenges, experts sought to articulate a strategic vision, which was missing. Putting this search in historical context, Michael Green’s 2018 book stimulated forward-looking discussion, including a review by the man credited with orchestrating Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” Kurt Campbell, along with the author of a forthcoming book, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, Rush Doshi.1Campbell will be the Indo-Pacific coordinator at the National Security Council, where Doshi will serve. With Biden’s inauguration, the quest continues for a clear, well-rounded regional strategy.
Green assessed the failures of the Trump administration in The Asan Forum in “Trump and Asia: Continuity, Change, and Disruption.” He argued that Trump cannot easily bend history, which inclines the nation toward deeper engagement with Asia. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative, Green called for improving it in response to the fact that China has “challenged the received assumptions about China policy in Washington by militarizing the South China Sea, reversing Deng’s era of ‘reform and opening,’ calling on Asians to move away from alliances with the United States, pledging technology dominance in Made in China 2025, expanding domestic repression, and enacting mercantilist embargoes against neighboring states.” Criticism of Trump draws little controversy, but Green goes further to lay the groundwork for a grand strategy.
Is a regional grand strategy possible”? Campbell and Doshi agree with Green that it is.
“Green’s central argument…is that despite occasional inconsistencies and inevitable missteps, the United States has over the last two centuries developed a “distinctive strategic approach” toward the Asia-Pacific. In his view, “the United States has emerged as the preeminent power in the Pacific not by providence alone but through the effective (if not always efficient) application of military, diplomatic, economic, and ideational tools of national power to the problems of Asia.” […] The central theme “is U.S. opposition to any other power exercising ‘exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific,’” pursuing counter-hegemonic strategy. […] The right balance will require elevating Asia’s importance in U.S. strategy; focusing on Japan and other democratic allies while avoiding condominiums with China; maintaining the U.S. forward-defense perimeter, even as China’s own defense perimeter pushes outward; continuing to advocate for democracy and human rights; and sustaining support for free trade in the face of domestic headwinds.”
A week before Biden’s inauguration, Campbell and Doshi elaborated on their thinking.2
“Regional orders work best when they sustain both balance and legitimacy and that Washington should work to advance both in Asia. […] It must recognize the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both. Such an approach can ensure that the Indo-Pacific’s future is characterized by balance and twenty-first-century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence. […] A combination of Chinese assertiveness and U.S. ambivalence has left the region in flux. Many of the order’s organizing principles are at risk. Trump himself strained virtually every element of the region’s operating system. […] At the heart of the region’s system are time-tested principles: freedom of navigation, sovereign equality, transparency, peaceful dispute resolution, the sanctity of contracts, cross-border trade, and cooperation on transnational challenges.”
Campbell and Doshi call for “managed decoupling” from China and efforts to persuade it that it will benefit from a competitive but peaceful region with collectively designed penalties if it were to threatens the larger order. They propose ad hoc coalitions focused on individual problems, embracing the UK idea of a D-10 combining the G-7 and the Quad as well as pursuing an expanded Quad.
The two top officials in the Biden administration have taken positions consistent with this set of recommendations. At the Hudson Institute, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State Tony Blinken called for rallying our allies and partners, mobilizing collective action. He stated: “Our abdication of standing up for our own values and in Asia and with regard to China’s actions, has, I think, given the government in Beijing a sense of greater impunity when it comes to cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong and abusing the human rights of Uyghurs in China.” Then in mid-January 2021, Blinken asserted that the United States under Biden would “uphold its commitment to ensure that self-ruled Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province, has the ability to defend itself,” adding that he would like to “see Taiwan play a greater role around the world,” urging it to join international organizations that do not require the status of a country and participate creatively in those that do.
Referring to Mike Pompeo’s recent relaxation of restrictions on official dealings with Taiwan, Blinken said, “I want to see that process through to conclusion if it hasn’t been completed, to make sure that we’re […] creating more space for contacts.” During his confirmation hearing, he added that the US should have acted sooner as “democracy was being trampled” in Hong Kong and proposed “to take in some of those fleeing Hong Kong, fleeing the repression, for standing up for their democratic rights.” Blinken also stated that he concurred with the Trump administration’s last-minute assessment that China’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang was tantamount to genocide. He added there is “an increasing divide between techno democracies and techno autocracies. Whether techno democracies or techno autocracies are the ones who get to define how tech is used […] will go a long way toward shaping the next decades.” He did not mention the Chinese Communist Party, focusing not on regime type but on behavior.
Jake Sullivan, before becoming the national security director, argued during a roundtable at Hudson, “Taiwan is an issue that is not getting the level of attention that I believe it deserves today from American observers of the regional situation […] The possibility of some asymmetric move [by China] vis-à-vis Taiwan, either this year or next year, or the year following, is very real. And so, it’s something that requires a deep level of attention.” In his view, the U.S. needed to elevate its engagement across every dimension in the Asia Pacific; and that must have military, economic and diplomatic components. For him, this was about strengthening the U.S. as a resident power in the Asia Pacific, which would put it in a better position to deal with China.
On January 3, on the CNN GPS show with Fareed Zakaria, Sullivan clarified Biden’s policy toward China. He attacked Trump’s go-it-alone strategy and called for collective leverage to reverse the most problematic Chinese trade practices. In consultation out of mutual respect, a common agenda can be developed on trade, technology, human rights, and military aggression, Sullivan explained. China is a serious competitor with the US, and the US will compete more effectively.
Never has a US president taken office with so much clarity on who will speak about Asia policy and what they think. Overall, Biden’s choices convey an unprecedented portrait of expertise, experience, and comfort working together. Many served together in the Obama administration. Many worked closely with Biden at that time or even earlier. They co-authored articles, and their numerous recent publications are largely consistent with each other. There is no shortage of knowledge about the countries and challenges in their purview. In spite of repeated expressions of anxiety from many Asian capitals about Biden’s likely policies toward the Indo-Pacific, as if his administration will revert to worrisome policies of the Obama era or remain rooted in extreme policies of the Trump era, a different picture emerges from a preliminary look at the thinking of officials chosen to steer US policy, providing a basis for anticipating policy choices.
As the line-up of officials in the Biden administration with responsibility for policy toward the Indo-Pacific region is becoming clearer, many are asking what these selections portend for the critical decisions that await. Should we expect a Cold War with China? How will the US respond to “sharp power” and the Sino-Russian relationship? On another great power triangle, how will the US access India-China relations and draw India closer? What approach will be taken toward North Korea after the vacillation from “fire and fury” to “love letters” by Trump? Reviewing the recent writings of Biden’s nominees, we can draw some preliminary insights into the policies that will be unrolled over the coming months by the US to address each of these questions.
A Cold War?
Biden chose his long-time aide Ely Ratner to be the chief China advisor at the Pentagon, as special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. Ratner was the lead author of the report presented to Congress, “Rising to the China Challenge: Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific.”3 Also, in a July 2020 Washington Post article with Richard Fontaine, he presented his views on Sino-US relations:4
“The decades-long rivalry with the Soviet Union has recaptured the attention of Washington’s foreign policy elite. One prominent camp of experts and former dignitaries is arguing that a new Cold War with China would be a mistake of historic proportions, to be avoided at all costs. Others are offering advice for how to prevail: enlist India as an ally, say, or perhaps befriend Russia. While China’s foreign minister is warning that the United States is pushing “to the brink of a new Cold War,” a former Trump official has already announced “the start of a new Cold War.” […] Looking backward to the Cold War obscures more than it illuminates about U.S.-China competition today…China lacks anything representing an Eastern Bloc, and the United States’ network of alliances is military but not economic; indeed, one of America’s top trade partners is its greatest geopolitical rival. U.S. allies aren’t ready to sign up for an all-out confrontation with Beijing, and nearly everyone wants some mixture of security and economic benefits from both the United States and China. […] Cookie-cutter Cold War policies — such as a counter-China military alliance, a geographic containment strategy or all-out economic warfare — are as ill-suited as they are unlikely to succeed. Nor is the answer to fan fears of a looming Cold War and urge Washington to ease up on competition.”
Ratner calls for a more differentiated competition with Beijing, one in which rivalry plays out issue by issue and countries balance an array of relationships with both capitals. Some policies will be containment-like: trying to stymie the export of China’s high-tech authoritarianism, for instance. Some will be more defensive, primarily aiming to prevent China’s dominance, as in the South China Sea. For climate change and non-proliferation, cooperation with China may be possible and even necessary. In other arenas, Washington will simply have to take a deep breath and acknowledge where greater Chinese influence actually doesn’t matter all that much to the United States. The answer is to build coalitions of the willing on different issues, responding to China’s unfair trade practices, supporting Taiwan, or dealing with repression in Xinjiang.
On “Sharp Power”
Laura Rosenberger is the senior director for China at the National Security Council, working along with Doshi and Julian Gerwitz, another rising scholar with stellar credentials and a lauded book, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. She was director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, taking a strong interest in values diplomacy and China’s efforts to use “sharp power.” Before that, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Blinken and deputy national security advisor, where she managed the interagency deputies committee, the senior-level interagency decision-making forum on pressing national security issues. In 2018 she wrote together with John Garnaut for The Asan Forum, “The Interference Operations from Putin’s Kremlin and Xi’s Communist Party: Forging a Joint Response”:
“Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin are systematically interfering in the politics and undermining the institutions of democratic nations. Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia have different long-term goals, strategic positions, methodologies, and capabilities. But their interests in weakening the liberal order are converging, and they are working from a similar asymmetric toolkit. […] Western democracies are now recognizing the dangers posed by authoritarian interference, but none has successfully implemented an effective counter strategy.”
Rosenberger and Garnaut argued for a clearer analytical framework for “identifying malign interference and developing politically sustainable resilience and deterrence strategies.” Such a framework would, in their view, allow for a more targeted policy response, which controls risk and minimizes harm, all the while preserving the benefits of engagement and democratic values that undergird extant institutions. Specifically, they call for a more robust response where sharp power is involved: “A reluctance to call out covert, corrupting, and coercive tactics—particularly as they played out inside diaspora communities and along peripheries—was interpreted by Putin and Xi as a permission slip to keep pushing.”
In sum, they call for a counter strategy that is clear in signal, and exacting in impact:
“An effective counter strategy must begin with an unambiguous political signal of intent. This new prioritization should be reflected in an elevated and integrated structure that works across the dimensions of the interference toolkit and stands above the interests of individual agencies. […] But an effective counter strategy cannot be just defensive—it must include robust deterrence and measures to raise the costs of hostile activity. The covert, deniable and incremental nature of interference operations introduces challenges for traditional deterrence measures. Nonetheless, raising and imposing costs will be critical.”
They also support a case-by-case approach—crucially, differentiating between Moscow and Beijing:
“Moscow has a far greater tolerance for being “caught” and suffering reputational damage than Beijing. In the longer-term, however, Beijing’s more incremental, nuanced and strategic play for the center of democratic societies is more insidious and difficult to counter. In both cases, their interference operations are growing too brazen and aggressive for sovereign democratic nations to ignore. The challenges presented by each will be amplified to the extent that there is coordination between them.”
On Sino-Russian relations
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is the senior director for Russia and Central Asia at Biden’s NSC. Along with Rosenberger (senior director for China), Doshi and Gerwitz (directors for China), and Sumona Guha (senior director for South Asia), she will be under Campbell. This arrangement puts Russia under the Indo-Pacific director, showing new focus on its behavior in this region. In a January 2021 report on Sino-Russian relations, Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman argued that in nearly every dimension of their relationship ties have increased, although the two states are divided over what this means. They wrote, “the impact of Russia-China alignment is likely to be far greater than the sum of its parts, putting U.S. interests at risk globally,”5 especially in the defense and democracy and human rights domains: “They have gone on the offensive to undermine democracy and universal rights as the foundation of the current liberal order, and are learning from each other how to increase the efficacy of their tactics. Already, Russia and China are popularizing authoritarian governance, exporting their best practices, watering down human rights norms, backing each other up to defend strategic interests in multilateral forums, creating norms around cyber and internet sovereignty, and bolstering illiberal leaders and helping them stay in power.”
Also important on Russia is Victoria Nuland, who served at the US embassy in Moscow in 1991-93 and continued to have a role in Russian policy at the State Department. She has been nominated as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, where she will be the third-ranking department official and manage day-to-day regional and bilateral policy issues. An ambassador to Russia during the Putin era, Bill Burns, has been named director of the CIA. Neither Nuland nor Burns is focused primarily on the Indo-Pacific region. Another former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, wrote in Foreign Affairs on January 19, 2021 that Biden will not hesitate to criticize Putin’s belligerent actions, especially those directed at the United States, which was confirmed on January 26 in Biden’s call to Putin.6 His administration will incorporate liberal norms and democratic values back into Russia policy, so Putin can expect more criticism of Russian autocracy and more support for human rights. McFaul warned: “Russia has significantly more military, cyber, economic, and ideological might than most Americans appreciate, [and has] major investments in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber-capabilities, about which the United States learned the hard way when a major Russian hacking campaign was exposed last month. Moscow has fewer (and weaker) formal alliances than Washington, but its ties with China, including deepening military ties, have never been closer. In terms of overall military capacity, Russia likely ranks as the third most powerful country in the world.”7
On North Korea
Many incoming officials have experience with North Korea policy, including Blinken, Campbell, and Wendy Sherman, the new deputy secretary of state who, under Madeleine Albright, managed talks with North Korea. They have had ample time to reflect on Obama’s lack of success in engaging Kim Jong-un (wrongly called “strategic patience”) and Trump’s charade of summitry with Kim (always mischaracterized and never with any chance of success). Also important in handling this issue will be Sung Kim, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who formerly managed talks with North Korea and served as ambassador not only to South Korea, but also to the Philippines and Indonesia. Insistent on conditioning summitry on bottom-up talks, they will rely on the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for East Asia Jung Pak, whose 2020 book on Kim Jong-un offers some guidelines on what policy toward North Korea will be.
Jung Pak, the author of Becoming Kim Jong Un, is nominated for the critical post of deputy assistant secretary of state with primary responsibility for the Korean Peninsula. As a former CIA and National Intelligence Council analyst, Pak’s views on North Korea are well known to other incoming officials. Moreover, her book (written while she worked at the Brookings Institution), sets forth a blueprint for policy that has to be in line with the thinking of her colleagues. The book not only provides insight into North Korea’s leader, warning that he should not be underestimated and that he is more interested in conflict than in peace and may be moving to an expansive vision of how he can use his nuclear and missile power offensively for reunification of the peninsula under the North. His aim is not deterrence, readers are told, and he seeks to decouple Seoul and Washington. By shifting from “fire and fury” to cozy summits, Pak argues that Trump made the US appear to be a paper tiger. Yet North Korea has vulnerabilities that can be exploited with maximum sanctions adding to Kim’s troubles. Pak proposes more and closer coordination with Seoul and Tokyo, a long-term strategy, more external pressure, and methods to increase domestic pressure inside North Korea. The way forward is not to make Kim feel more secure so he will feel easier about changing course but to alter his calculus by posing a threat to his rule unless he changes. Alliance strengthening would be followed by maximum pressure, five-party dialogue without the North, and efforts to erode Kim’s repression and image at home. Pak is not optimistic Kim’s coming moves and recognizes that this strategy is difficult.
For those who expect a return to “strategic patience” (a misleading term) or to summitry with new concessions to Kim Jong-un, the officials named by Biden suggest something else. Their choices do not appear to be in accord with Moon Jae-in’s agenda, raising warning signals for bilateral relations. They are also likely to meet stiff resistance from Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, exacerbating momentum toward polarization. Whereas in the wake of Trump’s shift to summitry in 2018-19 many may have been confused, this outcome is consistent with what has been the prevailing response to Trump’s moves within the community of US policy experts.
Syd Seiler, national intelligence officer for North Korea and the acknowledged foremost expert in the government, will also be heard on this issue. He has made clear that diplomacy for the North is a tactic to exact concessions and buy time, not to denuclearize. Its tactical ambiguity should not obstruct its strategic clarity. The 8th Party Congress in January was unambiguous that economic failure will not lead to any tradeoff in the North’s nuclear success or further economic reform at the expense of state control. There is no interest in humanitarian assistance. Instead, the priority is to win China’s sympathy as it too is pressured by the US, then to drive a deep wedge between Seoul and Washington, and finally to force the US to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. The pandemic and existing sanctions do not change Kim Jong-un’s calculus. Expected soon is a decision to put more heat on the US. Inaction will not be an option nor will engaging and coaxing the North toward denuclearization. Given the North’s military advances, use of force is not credible. If pressure seemed promising in 2017, it no longer does after leverage has been lost. A review in the coming weeks of North Korean policy will have to face such realities.
In this context, US policy toward allies is likely to be grounded in a broader set of strategic interests. Regional security cooperation will take precedence. For example, a strategy to manage North Korea will be key to the relationship with South Korea. Responses to ROK-Japan strains also will be premised on the impact on the overarching questions of regional strategy. Bilateral ties, thus, would be framed through the prism of multilateral strategizing, marking a fundamental change from the “America First” bilateralism of the Trump administration.
On India-China relations
Doshi has written on this for a book issued by the Korea Economic Institute in 2020, noting China’s limited role in Hindu nationalist discourse and suggesting that Modi is far more motivated by animus toward Muslims:8
“Nationalist leaders oppose China’s assertiveness on the border and its repression of Buddhists in Tibet, but not so much that they would push a BJP government to pursue dramatically tougher positions on those issues. […] Taken together the contradictory impulses on sovereignty, trade, and values questions related to China and the limited mass appeal of these issues strongly suggests that if Hindu nationalism strengthens, China policy is unlikely to harden as a direct result of that trend…Nationalist politics are unlikely to induce greater Indian balancing against China on its own.”
Despite the experience and professionalism of the officials chosen by Biden and the deliberate pursuit of a grand strategy to the Indo-Pacific region, challenges will arise. Strategies prioritize a long-term perspective, while adversaries are prone to cause urgent exigencies. North Korea, China, and Russia all have that potential. Complications also may arise from nettlesome decisions in India and South Korea inconsistent with a strategy under preparation. Veteran officials have faced such complications before, but the effect could be quick decisions without adequate leisure to fit them squarely into plans born of extensive deliberation.
The new approach to the Indo-Pacific region can be summarized as guided by a grand strategy, multilateral at its core, in preparation for a Cold War with China. At the same time, it avoids the term and leaves the door open to conditional cooperation; in particular, even though it assumes the worst about Russia and North Korea, it is prepared to be surprised. In addition, it is deeply attentive to the domestic sources of other countries’ foreign policy. Coalitions of the willing are envisioned on myriad challenges with the D10 combining the Quad and the G7, the Quad Plus, and trilateralism with Japan and South Korea. As Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary explained in her first press briefings, “Strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century. China is engaged in conduct that hurts American workers, blunts our technological edge, and threatens our alliances and our influence in international organizations. […] What we’ve seen over the last few years is that China is growing more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad. And Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity, and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach. […] We need to play a better defense, which must include holding China accountable and making sure that American technologies aren’t facilitating China’s military build-up.”9 Clearly, supply chain changes and export controls will be priorities.
Although this article has omitted the economic leadership in the Biden administration, crossing many departments, this may be as important as the geopolitical leadership. It is relevant that the new deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency is David Cohen, formerly of the Treasury Department. And Peter Harrell has been named senior director for International Economics and Competitiveness on the NSC staff. In an article for the Korea Economic Institute, he summed up US-China economic relations halfway through the Trump administration, faulting Trump’s lack of effort to build a global coalition and the stressing the need to continue to seek targeted tools to respond to Chinese abuses. He predicted a more hawkish line toward China than Obama took by a possible Democratic administration in 2021 with cooperation likely on climate change but more diversification of supply chains along with export controls. Officials at the Treasury, Commerce, and Justice departments are bound to work together to halt leakage of technology.
From Pak’s biography of Kim Jong-un to Rosenberger’s assessment of the nature of “sharp power” under Xi Jinping and Putin to Doshi’s analysis of the influence of national identity on Modi’s policy toward China, the quest for understanding the domestic sources of foreign policy in the new administration is unmistakable. Confirmation hearings clearly affirmed the priority on human rights and values. Although there is hesitance to talk of the Chinese Communist Party or the “China virus,” polarizing terms favored by some Trump officials, which hindered seeking common ground, the potential for ideological awareness and contrasts will keep growing. This can be expected as part of the articulation of a strategic vision for facing the Indo-Pacific arena.
From Biden down, a persistent priority is remaking the United States in order to establish a stronger foundation for foreign policy. The domestic and foreign spheres will be interwoven to an unprecedented degree.
1. Michael Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “Book Review Roundtable,” Asia Policy, Vol. 13, No. 3 (July 2018), 127–53.
2. Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy,” Foreign Affairs, January 12, 2021.
3. Ely Ratner, Daniel Kliman, Susanna V. Blume, Rush Doshi, Chris Dougherty, Richard Fontaine, Peter Harrell, Martijn Rasser, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Eric Sayers, Daleep Singh, Paul Scharre, Loren DeJonge Schulman, Neil Bhatiya, Ashley Feng, Joshua Fitt, Megan Lamberth, Kristine Lee and Ainikki Riikonen, “Rising to the China Challenge: Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific,” Center for New American Security, January 28, 2020, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/rising-to-the-china-challenge.
4. Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner, “The U.S-China Confrontation Is Not a. Cold War: It Is Something New,” The Washington Post, July 2, 2020.
5. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership,” CNAS, January 14, 2020.
6. Michael McFaul, “How to Contain Putin’s Russia: A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power,” Foreign Affairs, January 19, 2021.
8. Rush Doshi, “China’s Role in India’s Hindu Nationalist Discourse,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. East Asian Leaders’ Geopolitical Frameworks, New National Identity Impact, and Rising Economic Concerns with China (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2020), pp. 118-34.
9. The White House, Press Briefing Room, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/.