Analysis | Washington’s Asia strategy leading up to the midterms: Keep calm and carry on

Eleanor Shiori Hughes

Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris and over 50 foreign dignitaries flew to Tokyo to attend the state funeral of the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Harris led the U.S. presidential delegation, and shortly thereafter, made her way to Yokosuka naval base, where she spoke to U.S. navy personnel and denounced China for its aggression in the region, including on the Taiwan Strait.

Due to rapid geopolitical shifts in East Asia and the Pacific, U.S.-China relations have increasingly taken on a zero-sum logic, narrowing the space for cooperation. China is carrying out an ambitious long-term agenda to cement itself as a regional hegemon and achieve global acceptance of its foreign and domestic objectives. In response, Vice President Harris recently traveled to Japan and South Korea to underscore longstanding U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific and reaffirm the Biden administration’s “allies-first” approach as the centerpiece of its foreign policy. While many stakeholders in both Washington and Indo-Pacific capitals have welcomed this agenda, the Biden administration has not yet fully realized its vision to engage in a free and open architecture in Asia. Due to the long-term nature of China’s strategic objectives, the U.S. government ought to maintain a steady presence in the region by continuing to preserve its alliances. And with the upcoming U.S. midterm elections on November 8th, it would be prudent to take stock of the state of U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific, how other countries are also vehicles for delivering a positive vision of the region, and why there is still reason to keep calm and carry on.

The strategic choice between the Atlantic and the Pacific

Over the past several months, the war in Ukraine has led the United States to refocus its strategic priorities on the European continent. Through the “Pivot to Asia” strategy, former President Barack Obama and his administration sought to reorient America’s foreign policy priorities to meet some of the most pressing twenty-first-century challenges in Asia. But once Donald Trump took over the Oval Office, his administration made it an article of faith that the United States is once again living in an era of great power rivalry — in this case, namely with China. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War — and even after the Soviet Union’s collapse — the United States may have had the luxury of choosing to focus on strategic challenges in either Europe or Asia. But gone are those days. Washington lacks the necessary stamina to sensibly respond to China as the defining foreign policy challenge of this century on its own. But if the past is prologue, the Biden administration must figure out how to maintain a favorable balance of power in Europe while entrenching its presence in Asia.

The Biden administration has rightfully emphasized cooperation with like-minded allies and partners, but this pledge is just a starting point. The administration published an Indo-Pacific Strategy this past February and released a first-ever U.S. strategy for the Pacific Islands region this past week. However, Beijing is closely watching whether the United States and Western Europe will remain united in response to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. The PRC has high ambitions to fundamentally change the Indo-Pacific chessboard in its geopolitical favor, and they are in it for the long haul. Washington ought to continue to support its allies and friends in keeping pace with this challenge.

America is not the only country shaping the Indo-Pacific

U.S. regional allies offer a steady counterweight to Chinese power. Countries such as Australia and Japan have employed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework to address the China challenge through democratic norms and institution-building. For one, Australian decision-makers are oftentimes present in U.S. intelligence networks, including the Pentagon and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. While its military is only as large as the U.S. Marine Corps, Australia is also a member of Five Eyes, along with the newly-established AUKUS grouping with the United Kingdom. Washington has no qualms over incorporating Canberra into its intelligence-sharing mechanisms.

Meanwhile, over the past several years, Japan underwent a major grand strategy transformation under the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. He revolutionized Japanese foreign policy by publishing Japan’s first National Security Council in 2013 and reinterpreting Article 9 of Japan’s constitution to allow collective self-defense in 2015. As evidenced by the U.S. withdrawal from what is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), former President Trump was not as oriented towards multilateral institution-building. Biden may have largely eschewed prioritization of economic engagement in Asia in his first year of office, but with the formal launching of the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) earlier this summer, Tokyo recognizes that America’s renewed emphasis on regional economic integration is still a work in progress.

Just a few months ago, South Korea underwent a new transition of power favorable to the U.S. government. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10th. While his predecessor Moon Jae-in eyed delivering a formal peace declaration with North Korea and taking a more cautious approach in dealing with China, President Yoon demonstrated that he is more in sync with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and other players in acknowledging strategic interest and priorities vis-à-vis the PRC’s aggressive posture across multiple fronts. The recent joint statement that came out of his first summit with President Biden suggests that South Korea plans to up its cooperation with the U.S. and its diplomatic standing globally. But going forward, Seoul will need to take a concrete look at what tradeoffs and risks it is willing to take with allies and partners. The hope is that Seoul will create a comprehensive blueprint, outlining how it plans to marshal resources to shape the rules-based liberal order in Asia and begin to iron out differences with Japan.

Lastly, India has been walking on a tightrope, particularly because it has not fully condemned the Ukraine war. It relies heavily on military parts from Russia, yet it was only a few years ago that it confronted a bloody skirmish with China along the disputed Himalayan border, where twenty Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed. New Delhi may not be fully aligned with the West in regard to Putin’s authoritarian measures, but while in Uzbekistan last month, Prime Minister Narenda Modi told Putin that “today’s era is not the era for war.” As a member of the Quad, India is a critical player in America’s ongoing saga of institutionalizing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Moreover, one should not rule out the possibility that New Delhi’s relations with Moscow will experience a gradual cleavage.

Despite uncertainties, the time is right to keep calm and carry on

Admittedly, clouds are continuing to form on the horizon, and the Indo-Pacific is undergoing geopolitical shifts that have not yet produced discernible consequences. Some trendlines, such as North Korea’s accelerating nuclear missile program and the PRC’s continued efforts to project greater influence through illiberal means, will bring more disquiet than a stable equilibrium to many stakeholders in Asia, including the United States. Moreover, the outcomes of the U.S. midterm elections will either enable — or hinder — the Biden administration’s ability to further project its foreign policy agenda toward Asia.

In looking at the big picture, there is a bipartisan consensus that China is the defining foreign policy challenge for the United States in the long term and that the United States needs to support Taiwan’s democratic progress. On a more granular level, Democrats and Republicans disagree on how the United States can execute a durable China strategy. Irrespective of the results, the elections will not singlehandedly alleviate the effects of preexisting quandaries that have traditionally stymied American efforts to shape the landscape in Asia. Looking ahead, despite the U.S. government’s competing priorities in multiple theaters, Washington will need to continue using its various instruments of national power and coordinate closely with fellow Quad members, Australia, India, and Japan, to uphold and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Eleanor Shiori Hughes is a Defense Analyst at The Asia Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, DC. Her main research interests are Japan — Taiwan relations, U.S. grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the talent pipeline in the semiconductor industry, and the impact of China’s rise in the 21st century.

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