Op-Ed: U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy Will Change in the Next Four Years
Washington’s approach to the Indo-Pacific will change over the next four years, regardless of the outcome of the November election. The only questions are how and how much.
The first term of President Donald Trump produced many conventional national security and foreign policy outcomes in the Indo-Pacific. The US military is still forward-deployed. The Trump administration has maintained US alliances throughout the region and diplomatic commitments to Southeast Asia. It has undertaken new diplomatic initiatives as well, in places like the South China Sea and the Mekong.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s consistent focus on its Indo-Pacific strategy has helped catalyse similar conceptual frameworks as far afield as Berlin.
As for his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden is the definition of the bipartisan Washington establishment. He is proposing no big changes in America’s traditional Asia policy, beyond repairing the damage he estimates has been done to it by Trump. A Biden administration’s national security strategy would more resemble the Trump administration’s 2017 document than anything produced during Barack Obama’s administration.
All things being equal, bipartisan consensus on geostrategic competition with China will carry the day whoever wins the American presidency.
The problem is, all things are not equal. The US faces two deep crises at home: unprecedented levels of debt associated with managing the Covid-19 pandemic and escalating political divisions. The way it sorts though these challenges rests on the distribution of power in Washington for the next two to four years. And on that will turn the future of America’s Asia policy.
There are a number of likely configurations next year’s distribution of political power could take.
A Trump presidency, Republican Senate and Democratic House. This scenario will mean more of the same. Trump will continue a forceful line on China, and this competitive dynamic will guide American foreign policy generally throughout the region. There will continue to be bipartisanship in Congress around the need to confront China. The difficulty will come in reconciling inevitable overall budget cuts with a hawkish China policy. The choices will be to maintain defence spending at the considerable cost of domestic programs; to attempt the China competition on the cheap—most significantly, cutting into military readiness and shipbuilding plans; or to prioritize the Indo-Pacific theater over other global interests. There will be a similar set of choices with State Department and development assistance funding.
A Biden presidency, Republican Senate and Democratic House. There are competing factions within the Biden camp, one reminiscent of Obama’s conciliatory China policy and another more focused on competition with China. A Biden presidency will provoke persistent charges of appeasement from Republicans in Congress. No approach he takes to China will be strong enough in their estimation. This will invigorate hardliners in the Biden administration and seed the ground for ever-firmer policies down the road.