Blinken’s call: opportunities abound to revitalise US engagement in the Indo-Pacific

US President-elect Joe Biden has identified Antony Blinken as his preferred secretary of state. Challenges and opportunities abound to refashion outgoing President Donald Trump’s foreign policies that aggressively rolled back Obama-era commitments. The ‘America first’ policy saw the US pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The administration had begun exiting the World Health Organization, and some congressional Republicans sought to begin to dismantle the World Trade Organization. Some even challenged the value of NATO. It is no understatement that multilateralism, a centrepiece of US foreign policy since World War II, has been dramatically debilitated over the past four years.

Blinken and national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan now face the massive task of reformulating the US’s foreign policy and national security strategy. One thing Trump’s brief tenure in office proved was that America can’t go it alone when dealing with authoritarian countries like China, Russia and their proxies. Global governance is increasingly contested and multilateral institutions such as the UN, WTO and WHO have been in direct fire in the clash of authoritarian and democratic systems.

With the incoming administration to assume power from 20 January, the naval secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, has announced a reform of the US Navy’s 1st Fleet for the first time in more than 40 years. This follows a re-energised Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia in 2020. The US 1st Fleet will dedicate more American ships and sailors to waters off Southeast Asia and west to the Indian Ocean, including the Strait of Malacca.

Braithwaite told the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee that the new 1st Fleet ‘might be based in Singapore … [and] if not in Singapore, we’re going to look to make it more expeditionary oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as assist us’. In this context, the Port of Darwin may be another option, given that Darwin already hosts annual rotations of US Marines and other joint military exercises such as the biennial Pitch Black exercises hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Such recent activities can tell us how current opportunities and challenges for US foreign policy renewal will affect the new administration.

China’s promise of a peaceful rise is belied by its actions, which include an extensive military build-up, growing control of global shipping lanes, and a push to secure naval access in contested maritime regions. China’s military enhancements include upgraded warships and aircraft, missile arsenals, extended nuclear reach and increased technological capability, enabling Beijing to further assert its will over global affairs. Recent sabre-rattling over Taiwan is another indicator of heightened assertiveness. China’s cyber theft of national security assets and corporate secrets also shows the lengths to which it will go to gain supremacy.

Beijing’s recent actions in the diplomatic sphere are particularly troubling. Wolf-warrior diplomacy has replaced conventional diplomatic dialogue. China penalises nations critical of it by imposing ultra-high tariffs, denying market access and using predatory economics, among other coercive tactics. China’s willingness to exploit economic interdependencies to try to impose sanctions and punish countries that oppose it in any way is now clear. The signal is to all: it is dangerous to cross China.

Yet, against this extraordinary backdrop, both Japan and Australia signed up to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership on 15 November. The RCEP, a free-trade deal including 13 other Asia–Pacific nations, encompasses nearly a third of the world’s population and economic activity. That Tokyo and Canberra have signed the RCEP, even though both are in deep and unresolved conflict with Beijing, expresses the desire to continue doing business with China. India and the US are not, at this stage, signatories.

The US, Japan, Australia and India (among others) share some common challenges in their deteriorating relations with China. The Quad, which involves summits, information exchanges and some combined military drills, also contains indirect member benefits. These include improved bilateral relations among Quad nations and the possibility of future expansion. For example, the four Quad nations plus Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand have met to discuss coordinated responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, reflecting a desire for a multilateral response. The original Quad in fact comprised Japan, the US, Canada and the European Union. The UK is a further interested party.

The building of these multilateral and bilateral relations has only further antagonised Beijing. China’s responses to the Quad, and other multilateral alliances, are worrying because both it (and Russia) are highly skilled at influencing multilateral institutions to serve their own ends, such as China’s manipulation of the WHO at the outset of the pandemic. An enhanced and coordinated naval presence in the Indo-Pacific and around the Malacca Strait is unlikely to please Beijing and a bellicose reply should be expected.

However, the Quad grouping isn’t likely to become a formal security alliance, mainly because its members have different interests in the Indo-Pacific. The US and Japan, for example, have vital concerns in the South China and East China Seas. For Australia, strategic interests focus more on the South and Western Pacific. India’s focus is more on clashes with China in the Himalayas and its interests in the Indian Ocean.

The US is now directly challenged by China in trade and investment, advanced technologies including artificial intelligence, communications infrastructure and, to an extent, militarily. While more isolated than it was before Covid-19, China is aided by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ program and economic reach ensure that some dependent countries automatically vote in international forums to support China. Putin has even said that ‘liberalism has become obsolete’. China now overtly seeks reform of the global governance system to align the world more closely to Chinese Communist Party ideology. Calls to dial down rhetoric and dial up action are frequently repeated and make good sense, as it does for democracies to unify around shared interests and principles.

Looking ahead, the elephant in the US foreign policy room is not simply the People’s Republic of China, but an intensifying clash between authoritarian societies and liberal democracies that its rise represents. The Quad will need to reassure the region that it is more than just a military counterweight to China, but will apply itself to protecting the international rules-based order generally, and the economic multilateral rules-based order in particular.

A mandate for a renewed US will be to foster a more coordinated diplomatic and action-oriented effort, allowing like-minded partners to band together to defend democratic values and effective, rules-based multilateralism. The challenge is nuanced of course; no one is suggesting the road ahead will be easy.