Biden’s plan: out of Afghanistan, into the Indo-Pacific
16 Apr 2021|

US President Joe Biden has done what Barack Obama and Donald Trump wanted to do when they were in office but couldn’t—get a plan in place for a total US and partner military withdrawal from Afghanistan that ends a war that’s run since 2001.

It’s not a tidy end to a long, bloody war. But it is a strong statement that reorders US priorities now and for the next decade.

Biden’s America is engaged in rebuilding its economic strength and national cohesion and in re-energising its high-technology leadership for civil and national security purposes. This involves strengthening American alliances and partnerships internationally across a combination of economic, technological and security elements.

Counterterrorism remains on the agenda, but as a lesser priority than in the now-closed 9/11 era, and it’s a dispersed and distributed threat, not one that’s centred in Afghanistan.

The fact that his domestic and foreign policy agendas have so much alignment means fears in various foreign capitals that Biden would lead an introspective America are misplaced.

As a White House spokesperson put it:

[Biden] deeply believes that in contending with the threats and challenges of 2021, as opposed to those of 2001, we need to be focusing our energy, our resources, our personnel, … our foreign policy and national security leadership on those threats and challenges that are most acute for the United States: on the challenge of competition with China, on the challenge presented by the current pandemic and future pandemics, on the challenge posed by this much more distributed terrorist threat across multiple countries.

Closing the 9/11 era might well be the best way for Biden to do something else that eluded Obama and Trump—getting real government and corporate heft behind facing the challenge Xi Jinping’s state-corporate China poses to America.

In Obama’s case, the ‘pivot’ to the Pacific never happened because he wouldn’t extract the US from other commitments, notably its embroilment in the Afghan conflict. In Trump’s case, coherent policy eluded him, and his China policy successes were achieved by isolated folk within his dysfunctional administration.

Reinvestment in America’s technological strengths and re-engagement with allies and partners are already founding principles for Biden’s America.

Beyond these, the way for Biden to start with the China challenge is to deter Xi from military adventurism on Taiwan. Sending an ‘informal delegation’ to Taiwan in the week he announces an end to the US military presence in Afghanistan while pushing the Strategic Competition Act through Congress shows Biden gets this.

Right now, Xi is telling the world that China’s rise is inevitable, as is the decline of the US and ‘the West’. Because of this assessment, he’s been taking risks that have been paying off—in the South China Sea, in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong. And the consequences of such Chinese government risk-taking have been minimal.

Sanctions on lower level Chinese officials involved in the mass abuses in Xinjiang, and on Hong Kong officials engaged in implementing Beijing’s harsh repression of political freedoms there, don’t hurt the Chinese economy or anyone on the communist party’s politburo or touch the wealth of these aristocratic families, so why should Xi consider stopping? And why shouldn’t he keep moving fast on an even bigger domestic and political priority—unification of Taiwan with the mainland, if not through intimidation, then through military force?

Biden’s Afghanistan decision clears the air for the US to answer those questions because it makes an emphatic statement that US attention has shifted to the urgent competition with China. That’s good news everywhere but in Beijing.

Now is the time to dismantle Beijing’s narrative on Taiwan simply and clearly, because this is the path to changing Xi’s risk calculations about using force against that island.

The line we hear from Xi’s government is that Taiwan matters more to the people of China than to anyone else, so no one will sacrifice anything to oppose Beijing’s takeover of what is already psychologically theirs. This, as usual, is a story that Beijing is writing in the hope that others will believe it—with some success.

Biden can create that wonderful post-modern item, the counter-narrative; one that’s likely to be more powerful than Beijing’s Taiwan line because it has the virtue of being real. This starts with clarity of US and international interests in Taiwan.

Taiwan matters to the US, and to Australia, in ways that go well beyond written statements of commitment like the US’s Taiwan Relations Act. Hearing why from both Washington and Canberra will be a key plank in resetting Xi’s risk calculations.

Taiwan matters for at least four compelling reasons that, taken together, have to absorb the time and attention of national leaders and governments across the Indo-Pacific and in NATO.

And the reasons are a combination of strategic, economic and technological themes that echo the priorities Biden articulated during his election campaign and has been acting on since becoming US president in January.

The first reason is geographic. Taiwan’s location gives whoever owns it and is able to operate forces from it the ability to project military power into mainland China and to complicate Chinese military plans and its own power projection. China possessing Taiwan removes this constraint and enables it to project force more easily against Japan and South Korea and beyond its ‘first island chain’.

Taiwan is a 23-million-person island democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Whether or not it is conquered by an authoritarian Chinese government should matter to any other democracy on the planet, but it sure as eggs matters—to Australia, an island democracy of 26 million people in the Indo-Pacific, and to Biden’s US that has put values and human rights back at the centre of its foreign policy.

Then there’s the sheer economic and technological importance of Taiwan, home of much of the world’s semiconductor industrial capacity. This area of high technology is in the middle of US–China competition for future economic and strategic power. China lags the US and Taiwan in this area despite spending billions of yuan and decades of effort to catch up. Taking over Taiwan would close a glaring technological gap in Chinese civil and military technology while handing Beijing a powerful additional tool for economically coercing the rest of us (remember Beijing’s attempt to do this to Japan over rare earths).

And the last reason Taiwan has to be at the heart of US and allied priorities now and over the rest of the 2020s is that in strategic competition momentum matters. Analysts and pundits in the US and in allied and partner capitals told themselves, their governments and anyone else who would listen that China’s island building in the South China Sea and creation of military bases there only gave it control of ‘a pile of rocks’.

Instead, Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea changed the strategic position there to the great disadvantage of Southeast Asian states and in ways that undercut American and allied power. What more profound effect would Beijing gaining control of Taiwan have?

So, while Afghanistan decisions may seem a long way from Taiwan, Biden’s uncomfortable but necessary reordering of American power and interests away from the 9/11 era to the real competition of this decade comes at the right time.