The past month saw a series of proactive US deals with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, headlined by the announcement of a newly enhanced Australia-US-US trilateral security partnership and the first-ever personal Quad Leaders. ‘ Summit between Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
This is a remarkable sequence of events designed to illustrate the mantra “lead the world by the power of our example” introduced by President Joe Biden during his first foreign policy address at the US State Department earlier this year. But perhaps more importantly, these steps also represent the early stages of a comprehensive approach by the Biden administration to facilitate “responsible competition” with China, as highlighted in Biden’s remarks at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.
From “All-Out” to “Responsible” Competition
From a policy standpoint, this approach to “responsible competition” serves as a follow-up to the new approach previously articulated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can, and hostile when it must. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a strong position.”
Realizing that its unparalleled network of allies and partners remains one of the key components of the United States’ “strong position,” the Biden administration is seeking to deepen ties with allies and partners. The aim is to forge a capable coalition to strengthen its long-term competitiveness vis-à-vis China and to put more pressure on Beijing to behave in accordance with a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific , while also the threat of conflict and the avoidance of direct confrontation in a Cold War “zero-sum” mentality.
The United States is also trying to promote “integrated deterrence,” with diplomacy at the forefront. This approach is designed to use both military and non-military instruments to promote forward presence and power projection, and to build stronger defense cooperation and enhanced coordination with allies and partners. In this network of deterrence, AUKUS serves as an example of alliance-based defense partnerships, complementing the current United States military and security arrangements in the region, while the Quad serves as a new framework for US regional engagement, with a focus meeting the practical needs of the region, rather than a huge fixation on security cooperation and competition with China.
At the same time, the Biden administration continues to intensify the decoupling process and reduce China’s interdependence, especially in the high-tech field. The US has tried to monitor China’s acquisition of US technology companies; Restrict US investment and advanced technology transfer to Chinese companies associated with the military or domestic security sectors; Ban Chinese IT giants like Huawei and ZTE from operating in the US; and call on allies and partners to avoid integrating Chinese 5G technology into their systems. The US is also focusing on diversifying markets, including the digital economy and e-commerce, and strengthening ties with allies to boost US competitiveness.
Through the Quad, Washington aims to promote a model of good governance and development for the Indo-Pacific region, based on principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency and the rule of law. The Quad aims to deliver public goods to countries in the region, including COVID-19 vaccines and health, high-performance infrastructure, education, critical and emerging technology, cybersecurity and space data sharing, etc. These are all areas of significant regional demand, reflecting a US-led collective effort to present a superior development model to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
At the same time, the United States remains willing to cooperate with China. The Biden administration fully understands the difficulty of addressing pressing global challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and an inclusive global economic recovery without pragmatic cooperation with China and other world powers. In addition, in 2020, China continued to be the United States’ largest trading partner, largest source of imports and third largest export market. Exports to China created 1.2 million jobs in the US in 2019. companies (87 percent) chose not to move their production out of China.
Chinese officials still viewed the US approach with great skepticism and suspicion in their public statements. Beijing has repeatedly called on the US and its partners to abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception. However, as evidenced by recent high-level dialogues between the two countries, in which the two presidents discussed areas of mutual interest and agreed to promote deep channels of communication to ensure competition does not turn into conflict, China seemed to the Biden administration. new approach to major power competition, with this shift seen as beneficial to China’s interests. Aside from the resumption of high-level communications, the two countries have recently shown other signs of de-escalation, most notably the release of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou.
Implications for the Indo-Pacific Region
However, it should be noted that strategic competition between China and the US remains an inevitable and perhaps irreversible trend in the short and medium term. Although their leaders have made it clear that conflict is undesirable, the risks of miscalculation remain high. However, if the shift from total geopolitical competition to development model competition remains the dominant form of China-US competition, the region could benefit.
In the interests of regional interests, major powers should compete in public goods supplied to the region, with the aim of promoting peace, stability and prosperity. If tensions remain high, the US and China could try to work constructively with other stakeholders in the region, especially ASEAN.
With its central role in fostering regional engagement, ASEAN can play the role of mediator and coordinate “responsible competition” between China and the US for the benefit of the region. ASEAN can help distribute public goods more effectively through close consultation and coordination, bilaterally, multilaterally with ASEAN as a whole, or minilaterally with ASEAN member states. In this way, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific as a whole can proactively maintain their voice in competition from major powers, play a role in facilitating cooperation and mitigating conflict for the interests of all concerned.
However, to fulfill that role, ASEAN should try to do more on its part. While the Quad is diplomatic enough to always state their respect for ASEAN’s central position in public statements, the Quad’s expanded role should be more than a cause for concern to ASEAN member state leaders. The lack of consensus and resulting progress in addressing regional issues, especially the current situation in Myanmar, will continue to damage ASEAN’s reputation as the region’s facilitator if not properly addressed promptly.
In summary, ASEAN and the region can benefit from the shift from full competition to “responsible competition” between the US and China. But whether they can seize that opportunity or not remains to be seen.