Straits Times

America Is Back: Now It Must Adapt and Deliver

Asia-Pacific Security Chair
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks on the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy at the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 14, 2021. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks on the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy at the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 14, 2021. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

America's re-engagement with South-East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region was one of this year's most welcome developments, but Washington still needs to deliver on its promising start. A return to reliable U.S. statecraft in the region augurs well for next year - even if no diplomatic demarche could instantly guarantee geopolitical stability, end the coronavirus pandemic, or establish trusted digital governance.

After years of relative neglect, Americans will need to readjust to a changing region that comprises half of humanity and two-thirds of recent global economic growth. Senior members of President Joe Biden's foreign and national security team know this and seem determined to avoid pontificating.

In his remarks this month at Universitas Indonesia, for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the "magnificently diverse" Indo-Pacific, with its "more than 3,000 languages, numerous faiths stretching across two oceans and three continents". The fierce internationalist finished with a local proverb advising one to listen before speaking or acting.

Mr. Blinken implied that only through iterative diplomatic intercourse could America fashion a strategy that meshes clashing sensibilities and interests with security and prosperity for all.

Speaking on "A Free and Open Indo-Pacific", he previewed five pillars of U.S. strategy sure to feature in the National Security Strategy to be released next year.

Nearly a year into the post-Trump presidency, America's Asia strategy is slowly but surely emerging. Rules and institutions, allies and partners, economic growth, resilience and security are headings under which the Biden administration is erecting a sophisticated Indo-Pacific plan of action. And while elements of that strategy echo past policy, including recent visits to the region by Vice-President Kamala Harris, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and others, Mr. Blinken's travel to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in the first year of a new administration shows that the neo-isolationist mantra of "America first" has been replaced by an emphasis on strong allies and strong alliances.

First step: rules and institutions

The Biden administration's strategy for the Indo-Pacific starts with rule-setting and effective institutions that can preserve and defend a "free and open" order. That means, Mr. Blinken said in Jakarta, "that in this part of the world problems will be dealt with openly, rules will be reached transparently and applied fairly, goods and ideas and people will flow freely across land, cyberspace and the open seas".

A focus on rules is a tacit acknowledgement that agreed norms and procedures of the world's political-legal scaffolding are under duress. In part, rules are in flux because power shifts give some actors a more significant say in rule-setting. Technological innovation also requires updates to current rules. And we must work within existing institutions while creating new bodies and adding partners. This means increasing flexibility to deal with a dynamic technological and political context.

But flexibility can impose its own cost, including in the depth of commitment among longstanding partners.

The world's institutions and actors are not fully equipped to deal with the most pressing problems, so adaptation, compromise and creativity are required. The current popularity of plurilateral institutions, in which actors can opt-in on issues, gives flexibility but also undermines agreements.

The gaps in existing institutions threaten South-east Asian countries, yet many are reluctant to build new structures. Rather than feeling marginalized by the Quad (formally, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.), Asean members should welcome groups providing public goods.

Indeed, mini-lateral forums can offer South-east Asian states fresh opportunities to cooperate with clusters of like-minded states committed to rule minding and problem solving. Still, this shows the difficult balance between flexibility and structure, and the United States wants to work with allies and partners to shore up the old architecture while augmenting it with new mechanisms.

A stable regional order with partners

Those who assail the Biden administration for lacking a strategy sometimes elide over the importance of rule-setting and coalition-building as two facets essential to a successful strategy.

Local partners bear top responsibility for their region, and the U.S. wants to support them. The Biden administration puts a premium on working as closely as possible with them to build a coalition that brings about positive change together. For example, Mr. Blinken highlighted that no one actor or institution in South-east Asia can ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or protect the livelihoods of those who depend on the contested waterway through which more than U.S.$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) worth of commerce passes.

Still, focusing on rules and working with like-minded states are insufficient to solve all problems. There will be obstacles and setbacks. For instance, when China and Russia work in tandem to undo existing rules, how will the tussle between conflicting visions be resolved? Which local actors may be harmed in the process? Likewise, what if a network of allies and partners creates only superficial cooperation?

Regional critics like to question whether the U.S. is bearing sufficient risk or cost for maintaining regional order. But ordinary Americans likewise have a right to question whether allies and partners are shouldering sufficient burdens to ensure order and prosperity in their region. Only agreeing on rhetorical cooperation is not enough on either side.

Advancing regional trade policy

From the perspective of South-east Asian allies and partners, regional trade policy is the top concern, and here a digital trade accord can move us forward.

Unfortunately, the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cannot go back to it as currently constructed. But at least we now have positive momentum for establishing a regional digital framework governing future commerce.

If we can agree on digital trade rules, negotiated bilaterally, the U.S. and its regional friends can bring outdated trade policy into the 21st century.

China is aggressively trying to build free trade agreements on its own terms. It wants to use its economy's size and economic power to garner resources in the region and establish rules that favor China. So, there are two broad visions for trade in the region.

Meanwhile, Mr. Blinken and his colleagues in the Biden administration are busy crafting and discussing a broad "new economic framework" to help govern the digital trading economy, secure supply chains and ensure the free flow of information with trust. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in 2023, which President Biden will host, should be the target for a meaningful multilateral agreement in the future.

One can imagine many in Singapore preferring overlapping agreements that result in more trade with more partners, to the exclusion of none. But the prevailing trends in trade protectionism, industrial policy, export controls and techno-nationalism suggest further steps for rival powers to decouple critical sectors and avoid over-dependencies on each other.

The U.S.' significant retreat from the multilateral trading system is responsible for the largely missing link in Washington's regional engagement with Asia. Conversely, the rapid rise of China as the major trading partner of regional economies has deepened the fissure between economic and security interests. Regional partners are economically dependent on China, even as they rely on the U.S. for security.

Preserving regional security

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and the daily dose of ecological disasters that accompany climate change only reinforce the headwinds confronting U.S. policymakers. The Biden administration is leaning forward on vaccine diplomacy and retaking a leadership position in global climate change policy. But it's the fifth pillar - security - that is attracting the most attention and unease in the region.

In response to security concerns in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. Congress has given broad bipartisan support to the passage of the U.S.$770 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which included U.S.$25 billion more in hard-defense spending than requested by President Biden and added U.S.$2 billion to a now U.S.$7 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative explicitly aiming to push back on an assertive China. This is an assertive demonstration of U.S. security commitment to the region.

But no one wants a direct confrontation with China. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's concept of "integrated deterrence" harnesses all instruments of American power, where U.S. defense supports Washington's diplomacy in the region, integrated into the shared interests and joint efforts of like-minded countries. The problem with this otherwise fine aspiration is that, if diplomacy falters, military arms are often called upon to respond to crises.

The deterrence of conventional war may remain intact, but that will not erase rising regional tensions amid the growing capability of both the U.S. and China to pursue action backed by force.

Time to deliver

Despite many obstacles, America's heightened connections with South-east Asia are largely beneficial and welcome. The Biden administration has more than just shown up; it's begun to lay out a comprehensive, constructive and long-term strategy for the region.

But if 2021 was a time to speak less and listen more, next year will be time to act more and talk less.

The period between the U.S.' laying out an Indo-Pacific strategy and fulfilling expectations is fraught with risk. Only steady follow-through internationally while dodging destructive politics domestically can turn Mr. Blinken's Jakarta speech into reality. But pessimism is easy; optimism takes work, especially based on real effort and not rhetoric.

Above all else, the Biden administration understands how rapid shifts in political, economic and military domains continue to alter the regional picture.

The days of clear American global pre-eminence may be gone. But no other power is stronger or more capable than the U.S. in mobilizing others to work towards a common purpose and a positive, stable vision for South-east Asia.

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