By Andrew Senesac
As the Biden administration enters office, it will have to grapple with a foreign policy challenge that is more than just en vogue: competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China’s latest acts of gross human rights violations, intellectual property theft, cyberattacks, and wolf-warrior diplomacy have destabilized a region that is vital to the international economy. While there are myriad challenges facing the nation and the new administration, none preclude the United States from being a leading member of the Indo-Pacific community. The past four years have indicated that a bilateral approach to Sino-American relations can only go so far in changing Beijing’s behavior. America needs to change tack.
President Biden must seize the initiative in the Indo-Pacific through a presidential tour of the region, visiting America’s key friends and excluding the PRC. This tour should start with longstanding allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The following visits should include friends and partners India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. The Biden administration should strongly consider a visit to Taiwan as well. Such a tour would reinforce the primacy of democracy and responsible state action, shake Beijing’s assumptions of the geopolitical landscape and exhibit American determination to stand behind any democracy threatened by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A friends-first approach is needed to bring America’s Indo-Pacific partners closer together to ensure regional security, stability, and prosperity. Honest US-PRC dialogue is important, but before any new negotiations, Washington must first tend to its relations with its historic allies and friends to discuss critical issues (cyber, environmental, security, and trade). The administration should lay the groundwork for consensus among partners before any discussion with CCP officials.
America committed a substantial unforced error in putting a focus on bilateral negotiations with totalitarians Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping. The emphasis on bilateral talks enables Beijing to seek out and exploit fractures in bi- and multilateral relationships across the Indo-Pacific for its own benefit with the knowledge that repercussions could be couched within other negotiations. To remedy this, the Biden team needs to bring America’s friends and allies closer together, not look to further negotiations with dictators.
A Friends-Only Tour to Demonstrate Friends-First Diplomacy
The Biden team needs to seize the diplomatic initiative in the Indo-Pacific, and this tour would do so. The earlier the tour is, the greater President Biden’s “diplomatic first-mover advantage” is. By reaching out to these important nations early on in his presidency, Biden shows American commitment to its friends in the region. This tour would drive a fresh narrative for American Indo-Pacific policy, one that says: “President tours Indo-Pacific to work with fellow democracies” instead of “Washington reacts to latest Chinese action.”
One of the most significant visits in this tour will be to Australia, a nation actively enduring Chinese economic and diplomatic bullying (a response to Canberra questioning Beijing’s handling of COVID-19). It is crucial that the Biden administration throw its full weight behind Australia while the PRC harasses them. This is the first step to showing that America is the steadfast ally it claims to be and will signal to other Indo-Pacific democracies that the US will help them stand up to Chinese harassment. In publicly supporting Australia, Biden helps an ally and puts a spotlight on Chinese sensitivity to embarrassment from abroad (a weakness inherent to every dictatorship).
Building A Strategic Consensus
The strategic challenges of the coming decade are complex and evolve rapidly. Not since the start of the Cold War has a generation of American policymakers had to deal with such a sea-change of geopolitical priorities that have such high economic and security stakes. America and China are the two largest economies in the world, but China is a pseudo-communist dictatorship that has no qualms about flagrantly violating international law and accepted norms in a unilateral pursuit of CCP interests.
A friends-only tour of Asia would give the President and national security policymakers a fresh avenue to gain perspective and coordinate strategies with allies to counter the threats Beijing presents. Each of these nations has unique relations with China and perceive different threats. A tour means President Biden can speak with each respective leader about the strategic threats China poses to them (through cyber-attacks, missile and military build-up and economic coercion) and where their country stands on a response. For instance, a Biden visit to Seoul could include discussing China’s economic and military support of North Korea, Chinese cyberthreats facing South Korean government and businesses, and the current People’s Liberation Army (PLA) posture toward South Korea and the American forces stationed there.
Power is the ability to produce an effect. The power of this tour comes from three sources: a CCP fear of being left out or embarrassed on the international stage, the significance tied to a presidential visit, and the hard power capabilities America and its friends possess (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue being an obvious example). The intended use of these sources of power is to bring about a Chinese de-escalation in both rhetoric and conduct. A more unified democratic community in the region will force the PRC to re-evaluate its relative power and change course accordingly.
By excluding the PRC and its leadership from a tour that brings together some of the world’s preeminent economies and militaries, the Biden administration will be sending out a clear message: current CCP behavior is not sustainable in the long term. The democratic Indo-Pacific community can come together on the key issues of the day without the PRC. Chinese antagonizing of democracies and flouting of international law must stop, lest the CCP end up out in the cold. An escalatory response from the CCP or the PLA would prove to the region and the world that China is a belligerent power and would reinforce the first aim of the trip: bringing Indo-Pacific democracies closer together. The more China lashes out, the more other Indo-Pacific nations are incentivized to work together and closer with the United States on present and future issues.
If President Biden undergoes such a tour, then the United States will demonstrate that it fully embraces its responsibilities to its friends and to the Indo-Pacific as a whole. The tour will show that the US wants to work with not just its oldest allies but all the democracies and responsible nations in the Indo-Pacific to fulfill the region’s immense potential. A landmark presidential 2021 tour would build considerable goodwill that United States will need for difficult negotiations on important issues going forward.
Andrew Senesac is a first-year SAIS M.A. candidate with a concentration in Strategic Studies. His research interests include grand strategy and Indo-Pacific security policy. He earned his B.A. in History from Gettysburg College.