Donald Trump entered office four years ago with a promise to pursue an “America First” strategy. Different from its predecessors, which focused largely on expanding multilateral free-trade agreements, embracing relations with alliances, and pursuing stable relations with China, the Trump administration focused on crafting bilateral trade agreements, pursuing strategic competition with China, and strengthening alliance ties while concurrently criticizing them. The United States will begin 2021 with a new administration led by Joe Biden.
Aside from the possibility of black-swan events, the security challenges facing the incoming Biden administration are likely to remain largely the same as those in 2020. As such, it is likely the United States will continue to prioritize similar issues in its outreach to the Indo-Pacific region. The specifics, however, will depend on the answers the Biden administration arrives at to several questions examined below.
U.S. Approach to the Indo-Pacific Region
The increasing geopolitical, military, and economic heft of the Indo-Pacific region means the United States will likely continue to prioritize the region in 2021. This means certain elements of the Trump administration's Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy or the Obama administration's “rebalance” are likely to remain in place. This includes a focus on free trade, transparent development assistance and infrastructure support, freedom of navigation, and freedom from coercion. Because regional countries find themselves under increasing duress on many of these fronts, the Biden administration will likely continue to work with regional allies and partners to prevent further deterioration of these elements. Within the region, there are four areas that will likely remain unchanged as U.S. priorities in 2021.
The security challenges facing the incoming Biden administration are likely to remain largely the same as those in 2020.Share on Twitter
The first is China. Chinese activity in 2020 in the military domain continued to follow a pattern seen over the past decade. Increased military spending, defense modernization, and air and naval provocations have undermined U.S. military advantages and freedom of maneuver. Additionally, China's maritime and air activities in and above the East and South China Seas continue to challenge the sovereignty of other countries, intimidate Taiwan, and undermine regional stability. Collectively, these actions impair U.S. interests. A similar story is occurring in the economic domain. China's state capitalism is at odds with free and open economic competition. In addition to industrial subsidies and unfair trade relationships, the United States has increasingly called out Chinese technology transfers, use of tariffs and currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, and leveraging of development assistance to expand China's influence. Consequently, economic ties have shifted and become increasingly confrontational. These trends are unlikely to change in 2021, ensuring U.S. attention will continue to focus on China.
A second issue is North Korea. Despite three years of sustained diplomatic efforts by Washington and Seoul, there is scant evidence that Pyongyang has changed toward more peaceful behavior or that the threat it poses has been reduced. Not only has Pyongyang tested and developed more weapons over the past four years, a military parade in October 2020 appears to show it has developed a new ICBM. How the Biden administration chooses to approach North Korea could dominate its foreign policy agenda. Should it continue to pursue diplomacy without any tangible evidence of change? Should it declare an end to the Korean War and accept North Korea as a nuclear state? Or should Washington return to a harder position, even if Pyongyang continues its penchant for provocations? If these were not hard enough questions, COVID-19 may lead to greater instability on the Korean Peninsula, leading to a crisis early on for the next administration. Whereas 2020 was relatively quiet, history shows North Korea rarely stays quiet for long. The Biden administration may face an early challenge from North Korea.
The third likely priority issue for the United States in 2021 is relations with allies and partners. Because of the continuing security concerns stemming from China and North Korea, U.S. allies and partners will likely continue to be a strategic asset for the United States. While U.S. alliance relationships in 2020 remain more or less strong, several undercurrents of friction could manifest in 2021 to challenge Washington. With Japan and South Korea, the major focus of attention will be continuing negotiations over the extent they are willing and able to fund contributions to continue hosting U.S. forces in their countries. While it appears unlikely a Biden administration would apply the same level of pressure on these allies as a second-term Trump administration would have, there is discussion in Washington on the need for allies to do more to support the United States. This makes it likely these allies will seek to delay these talks and potentially reach a better deal with the next administration. U.S. relations with the Philippines and Thailand generally improved in 2020, with Manila retracting its threat to cancel a bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement and security ties with Bangkok continuing a return to pre-coup normalcy. As the past has shown, however, small perceived slights or an overbearing United States can easily derail improvements. Only with Australia, where alliance ties were relatively smooth in 2020, does 2021 appear to be shaping up to be free from potential problems. That said, one potential issue Washington may face in 2021 that may cause friction in any of its alliances is the issue of whether any ally is willing to host U.S. ground-based intermediate-range missiles.
The increasing geopolitical, military, and economic heft of the Indo-Pacific region means the United States will likely continue to prioritize the region in 2021.Share on Twitter
A final U.S. priority in 2021 is COVID-19. While the focus will be on containing further domestic spread concurrently while mitigating the impact on the U.S. economy, there are regional matters related to COVID-19 that will likely have Washington's attention. First, in addition to continuing to monitor the possible spread of COVID-19 among U.S. forces in the region, the United States might also need to be alert to any COVID-19–induced degradation of military readiness of not only regional-based U.S. forces, but also those of allies and partners to prevent adversaries sensing opportunities to be exploited. Second, as the region is a major trading hub, the United States may need to continue to contend with mitigating the effects of border closures and diminished transportation links in regional and global supply chains. Third, U.S. engagement may continue to focus on countering the efforts of countries that seek to exploit COVID-19 for gain, including spreading disinformation and provoking states weakened by the pandemic. Finally, the United States may continue to work with regional allies and partners to coordinate efforts on stopping COVID-19 and working toward recovery.
In response to these challenges, the Biden administration will likely confront several questions as it develops policy responses. Below are some of the more likely questions that may arise.
What is the best approach with China?
In the United States, China is seen as both benefiting from the current world order while simultaneously challenging it through activities that discredit its principles and norms. It is unclear, however, what the best U.S. approach should be. Will the Biden administration continue to pursue strategic competition and accuse China of exploiting the rules-based order and attempting to restructure it to its advantage and seek to reinforce U.S. strength and promote U.S. influence? If so, to what extent will the United States try to encourage stronger support from its allies? Alternatively, should the trade war intensify and regional allies and partners grow increasingly uncomfortable with the competition, will the next administration shift its approach and focus less on the explicit geopolitical competitive aspects and instead seek ways to reinvigorate U.S. alliances and partnerships as part of a broader multilateral effort that includes international/regional institutions?
And with either approach, to what extent should Washington pursue more visible ties with Taiwan, particularly after the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act in March 2020, signaling strong bipartisan support for preventing Taiwan's diplomatic allies from severing their ties with Taipei under duress from Beijing?
What will be the U.S. level of attention to regional development assistance and infrastructure support?
In October 2018, Congress passed and the Trump administration signed the BUILD Act to improve the use of investment for development. The new entity that was created was given a budget of $60 billion to help encourage private investment projects as alternatives to projects supported under China's Belt and Road Initiative. As competition between the United States and China continues into 2021 and the economic effects of COVID-19 continue to spread throughout the U.S. economy, how much flexibility will the Biden administration have to devote large sums of economic assistance overseas? Furthermore, should Chinese activities call for more immediate U.S. responses in the military, diplomatic, and economic domains, where will development assistance and infrastructure support fall in the long list of U.S. policy priorities?
How strongly should the U.S. prioritize human rights?
Although the Trump administration had occasionally spoken to issues of human rights, such as criticizing China's human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and even sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for repression, its efforts were arguably limited to China. Other countries' abuses were largely ignored. Will the Biden administration continue to highlight human rights abuses as it pertains only to China? Or will human rights reemerge as one of the main pillars of U.S. foreign policy? And will the United States go even further and pursue a broader value- and democracy-promotion agenda in its outreach to the region?
To what degree will the United States seek to strengthen relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both as an organization and with its individual member countries?
Despite the Bush and Obama administrations' efforts to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia and continuing demand signals from individual Southeast Asian nations for more U.S. engagement, there is also an explicit desire to avoid being forced to choose a side in the U.S.-China strategic competition that emerged. While the Trump administration has continued to grow relations with Vietnam, improved U.S. relations with Thailand following years of fractured ties, and avoided a potential U.S.-Philippines alliance-ending decision if Manila had canceled the Visiting Forces Agreement, multilateral diplomatic engagement in the region's institutions has not been a priority despite U.S. allies like Japan and Australia strengthening ties with ASEAN. Where ASEAN or individual Southeast Asian states will fit in U.S. policy in 2021 will be something the Biden administration may have to answer, particularly as part of a broader regional strategy. Should these states continue to seek balance in U.S.-China ties, the next administration may be challenged to effectively reconcile engaging them while deflecting Chinese influence.
How and to what degree should the United States engage India in implementing its regional strategy?
The Trump administration sought to deepen U.S.-India ties, continuing a general pattern set in motion by its predecessors. This includes maintaining the designation of India as a Major Defense Partner to help support India's capacity-building, a designation initiated by the Obama administration. There is no reason to believe the Biden administration would dramatically shift that trajectory. Yet, some questions may need to be answered. How will the United States respond should New Delhi oppose U.S. efforts to explicitly strengthen military and political cooperation with India as part of the geopolitical competition with China, such as fully formalizing the Quad? Similarly, will the United States continue to highlight India's plans to purchase missiles from Russia and oil from Iran, much to India's chagrin, and risk improvements in bilateral ties? Finally, should the United States push India on civil liberties and link improvement to the clearance of weapons sales, even though this may jeopardize stronger ties?
The security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region could ensure that the region continues to remain important to the incoming Biden administration, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as dynamic as the region is, the security trends have proven relatively static, suggesting the issues of China, North Korea, and U.S. alliances may sit high on the list of policy priorities of the next administration. While the Biden administration's specific policies may depend on answers to the aforementioned questions, the U.S. regional approach may exhibit more continuity than change.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific on December 10, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.