United States President Joe Biden executed a bold diplomatic outreach to the Indo-Pacific region last month through carefully choreographed visits of his three top officials — Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. This is part of a deliberate strategic re-focus, away from the 20 years of Afghanistan and Iraq and towards maritime Asia, where COVID-19, climate change and China are the compelling challenges.
Assessing what the three American dignitaries sought and actually achieved is instructive in order to appreciate the impressive sweep of diplomacy and military strength of the world’s top power, the United States. Their discussions would surely mould the geopolitical equations in the region.
Ms. Sherman’s visit (July 19-27) was probably the most complex since it covered not only Japan, South Korea and Mongolia but also China. Throughout her trip, she reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to working with allies and partners for the promotion of peace and prosperity and upholding a ‘rules-based order’, the code word critical of China’s behaviour. Her discussions with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo, covered not only the present state of the Japan-U.S. alliance but also other issues including Myanmar and COVID-19. In addition, she participated in a trilateral meeting involving Japan and South Korea, perhaps in a bid to smoothen tensions afflicting the two east Asian neighbours.
By visiting Ulaanbaatar, Ms. Sherman became the highest U.S. dignitary to visit Mongolia since 2016. Despite its close relationship with Beijing, Mongolia looks for devices to assert its independence. So, the opportunity to discuss its needs and concerns with the new administration was valuable. In Tianjin, China, she held discussions with Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, her counterpart, and was also received by Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Her main mission was to convey that the U.S. welcomed competition but did not seek confrontation with China. She also discussed forthrightly the dismal human rights situation in Xinjiang and logistics for a possible Biden-Xi Jinping meeting at the G20 summit in Rome in October.
The visit by Mr. Austin (July 23-30) covering three important ASEAN member-states — Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines — turned out to be the most productive in that it reiterated the necessity for a U.S. military presence in the region. As the Pentagon chief, Mr. Austin is heard with attention, particularly when he speaks with the candour of a veteran general. “Beijing’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law,” he aptly asserted, while delivering the Fullerton Lecture on July 27. He listed China’s other objectionable actions, including “aggression against India”. And then he sent out the key signal to Beijing: “We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation.”
This seems to have resonated, as Mr. Austin’s discussions with leaders of the three countries went off exceptionally well. In a joint statement, Singapore and the U.S. agreed that America’s presence in the region is “vital for its peace, prosperity and stability”. The U.S. side appreciated Singapore’s logistical support to U.S. military aircraft and vessels, while Singapore benefits from the arrangement of an air force fighter training detachment hosted in Guam as well as new training facilities inside the U.S. Singapore could modulate its current inclination to move closer to China.
Mr. Austin encouraged Vietnam to develop closer defence cooperation with the U.S. A new memorandum of understanding was signed to resolve the war legacy issues by creating a database to accelerate the search for those still missing in action (MIA). Mr. Austin’s visits to Singapore and Vietnam will be followed shortly by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. The Philippines leg produced a notable result as Manila agreed to full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement which provides the legal foundation for the U.S. military presence in that country.
Mr. Blinken’s trip to Delhi and Kuwait drew attention for its positive outcomes. The India visit was more in the nature of a consultative, confirmatory dialogue rather than one that results in signing of new agreements. His discussions with the Prime Minister, the National Security Adviser and the External Affairs Minister brought out clearly that the areas of convergence between the two nations are expanding and the areas of divergence are shrinking. His repeated observation that the friendship with India is one of the closest that the U.S. has, was music to Indian ears.
On Afghanistan, the proximity of perceptions was emphasised, although this did not conceal the differences in their perspectives. On the Indo-Pacific, however, the convergence was clear, with the two Foreign Ministers agreeing to cooperate on a range of geopolitical and geo-economic issues without uttering the “C” word even once in their smoothly-managed joint press conference. By clarifying that the Quad was not “a military alliance”, Mr. Blinken spoke the truth, tipping his hat to India’s strategic autonomy. He defined the Quad as four like-minded countries “coming together to work collectively … on regional challenges, while reinforcing international rules and values”.
Together, what do the three visits signal? First, that America’s China policy and the Rest of the Indo-Pacific policy will run in tandem, with inner consistency ensured by Mr. Biden. Second, Washington maintains a tough attitude towards Beijing, but it desires to keep the doors open for dialogue. The relationship with China is marked by three characteristics — adversarial, competitive and cooperative — and is likely to stay that way. Third, the U.S. is willing to resist and counter China firmly, but with the full engagement of and contribution by the like-minded states of the region. Therefore, Mr. Austin’s exposition of “integrated deterrence”, defined as “using every military and non-military tool in our toolbox, in lock-step with our allies and partners….”, assumes significance.
In short, the U.S. is back and is willing to lead — but the region will have to seriously step up too and participate actively to maintain peace and prosperity. Asia can ill-afford to be a reticent bystander.
This article was first published in The Hindu.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former Ambassador to Myanmar.