During a recent series of phone calls with the leaders of close Asian partners and allies after his victory in the presidential election on November 3, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden reassured them that Washington was in it for the long haul in the Indo-Pacific region.
The fact that Biden used the phrase “Indo-Pacific” suggested a broad continuity with the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, itself a carbon copy of a concept authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
But he also appeared to introduce a subtle shift in language: instead of using the phrase “free and open” to describe Washington’s intentions for the Indo-Pacific region, Biden employed the formulation “secure and prosperous.”
The usage appeared deliberate and consistent. Speaking with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, he promised to work on many challenges, including “maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” He told South Korean President Moon Jae-in of his desire to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a “linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
To India’s Narendra Modi, he once again spoke of a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” while he and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide of Japan spoke of their shared commitment to reinforcing the U.S.-Japan alliance “as the cornerstone of a prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region.”
There is always a risk of reading too much into small changes in the tenor and tone of diplomatic messaging, but the change could signal a purposeful attempt to tweak some of the more unpopular elements of the FOIP strategy.
As a strategy aimed at curbing Chinese power and ambition, the Trump administration’s “free and open” formulation has always courted contradiction. It is vague on whether it aims at promoting freedom and openness within countries, or between them, or both. It has thus resulted in jarring incongruities, as when U.S. officials sing hosannas to shared visions of “freedom and openness” while visiting one-party dictatorships like Vietnam or illiberal democracies like Narendra Modi’s India. Coupled with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s blistering ideological harangues against the Chinese Communist Party, the phrase carries implications a messianic drive to convert Asia to democratic values.
The shift in language employed by Biden is important for two reasons. First, his use of the “Indo-Pacific” moniker suggests that this new strategic concept, and the broad recognition of the strategic challenge posed by China, is here to stay. Despite Biden’s flip-flopping on the campaign trail, including one awkward occasion on which he commented that Chinese leaders are “not bad folks,” the anti-China turn enjoys such broad, bipartisan support that it is hard to see Biden returning to the engagement of the pre-Trump years.
Second, it indicates a shift to a more pragmatic register, one that is more closely aligned with the interests and outlooks of most Indo-Pacific nations. In a recent article, the hawkish Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney, argued of the shift: “It could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.”
Beyond the four members of the Quad, however, such an ideological framing of competition with China is likely to alienate more partners than it attracts. A shift of focus may be just the thing that the U.S. needs in order to court broader support for its Indo-Pacific strategy, particularly in Southeast Asia, where governments tend to view the China challenge as a question of power rather than principle. As Alex Vuving, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawai’i, noted in a tweet on November 19,“This new narrative is more attuned to leaders in Asia. They value security and prosperity more than freedom and openness.”
Whatever language or stance it adopts, the Biden team will have to counter continuing questions about U.S. commitment and credibility in the Indo-Pacific, especially after four erratic years of “America First” diplomacy. The “prosperity” leg of the dyad in particular will require work, especially after last week’s signing of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership left the U.S. sitting outside Asia’s two major free trade pacts, and without much in the way of a strategy for economic engagement with the region. Biden’s team has a lot of work to do.