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  • Swapneel Thakur


With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the power relations in the world became skewed with the United States of America occupying the centre stage in the international community. Although the United States was acclaimed as the global hegemon, the twenty-first century saw its hegemony diminishing as the world moved towards multipolarity. With G20 challenging the primacy of G7 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) becoming a key player in global politics along with the rise of many regional and trans-regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the emergence of Asian powers such as China and India as well as the resurgence of Russia under Vladamir Putin represent a major shift in the balance of power towards a greater equilibrium between the West and the emerging countries of the world. However, this does not give the leeway for one to assume that the United States has lost its once dominant holding that it takes pride in.

If looked from the very basics of policy building, it is easily understandable that a country’s foreign policy is a function of its perception and reaction to the internal and external environment through which it may attain its political goals. Usually, the two important factors that are to be considered while evaluating a country’s foreign policy are the internal political culture which influences the policy behaviour, and the circumstances that prevail during the formulation of the policy. Gideon Rose, in his article titled “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,” suggests that both the systematic pressure of the international community and the country’s domestic political structure contribute much to the building of a foreign policy. Thus, as the world evolved, so did the U.S. foreign policy with a variety of approaches that each leader brought in through confrontation and cooperation. However, what seems common among all of them is their view on building greater ties in the Indo-Pacific. A region that is already seeing emerging powers such as India, Japan and China, the U.S. has debated over a plethora of policy objectives in the recent years, including President Donald Trump’s republican notions and President Joe Biden’s democratic values. This essay looks to map the differences in their approach to their strategies vis-à-vis strengthening political positioning of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific as this region is vital for securing both domestic and international goals.


For several decades, U.S. leaders and policy makers enjoyed a relatively unanimous support for a liberal internationalist foreign policy based on removing interstate barriers to trade and commerce, promoting good governance and enmeshing states into rules based international institutions. In the last few years, however, politicians such as Donald Trump exploited lengthy American overseas military interventions and rising inequality to formulate populist policies such as “America first” to gain foothold in American politics. Trump firmly believed that liberal internationalism had failed in rather serious ways. Contrary to the predictions of political commentators, the general public resonated with the claims and allegations made by Donald Trump; with the 2017 Gallop polls showing the existence of a massive support base for Trump’s commitment to renegotiate existing U.S. agreements which went against the principles of free trade.

While this brought about a significant change in American domestic politics, its international manifestation introduced a more competitive U.S. foreign policy that was majorly in response to the changing nature of U.S.-China relations. The Trump Administration chose to no longer adhere to the 30 year long dual track approach of engagement and hedging, but to embrace a strategic competition against China. The latter’s rapid accrual of economic, military, geopolitical and technological power had created new domains of competition with the U.S., that later expanded to mutual friction points in the realm of 21st century diplomacy in the fields of emerging technology and global governance. However, the tension in the U.S.-China relations was not driven by the China’s rise to regional hegemony but by the frustration over China’s use of its hegemonic powers. Since 2013, Chinese leaders have been more aggressive in wielding tools of power display such as military operations in the South and East China Seas, human rights violations under the pretext of wading off extremism from the mainland, coercing U.S. allies through threats of economic boycott. While this came as a serious warning for U.S. foreign policy makers, it also gave birth to a greater opportunity for Trump’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” to be seen as a possible alternative to a Chinese dominated region. A successor to Obama’s Asia-Pacific, Trump’s Indo-Pacific policy reflected a greater need of incorporating emerging countries in the Indian Ocean to help contain the Chinese political dominance. While India was a major addition to this integrated framework, the policy helped in re-engaging with smaller nations in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Island regions. In South Asia, the Trump administration had worked to tighten relationships with countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka by offering new high-level dialogues and assistance that included $500 million towards infrastructure development in Nepal and a high-endurance Coast Guard cutter for Sri Lanka. In Southeast Asia, the Trump Administration had offered new forms of technical assistance and advice to countries such as Myanmar that had enabled them to improve the terms of their infrastructural loans with China. Beyond enhancing bilateral ties, Trump also continued the existing effort to promote stronger mini-lateral network between the U.S. and its partners. A growing sense of shared concern about the Chinese influence had helped propel new dialogues over facilitating combined naval operations in the South China Sea, collaboration on debt transparency, infrastructural standard setting and digital connectivity initiatives. Much attention had also been given to revitalize the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, Australia, India and Japan. Additionally, U.S. agreements with Australia, India, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan to coordinate development assistance in third party countries had increased support for Lower-Mekong Initiative, and its partnership with Australia and Papua New Guinea to modernize the Lombrum naval base was formulated with the concept of a more open Indo-Pacific as the principle. However, the broader trend line for American alliances and partnerships had been mostly negative under the Trump administration. His approach often drew the perception that US interests were misaligned with those of its allies. Although many American allies quietly shared concerns over Chinese hegemony in the region, Trump’s lack of participation in Asian forums such as the East Asia Summit, and the withdrawal of the United States from multilateral cooperation on issues such as climate change and Coronavirus vaccines reflected a lack of American interest in prioritising the Indo-Pacific. American allies in the Indo-Pacific also started doubting the ability of the United States to confront China. Considering the complexities of globalised trade and economy, it would be plausible to assume that US partners would rather prefer a degree of coexistence than hard lined confrontation. In practice, American allies in the Indo-Pacific have prioritised their economic interests over uninterrupted commitment to the Americans by often showing interest to cooperate with the Chinese in the absence of the United States; Japan’s interest in cooperating and Singapore’s defence agreement with China being two such instances. While these countries would often wish to stabilise their economic and political futures with a regional power like China, Trump Administration would often distort their goals by creating the impression that ties with China may come at the cost of forgoing relations with the United States. The frustration over Trump’s confrontational narratives vis-à-vis 5G Technology and ‘debt trap diplomacy’ were very apparent during his tenure. Leaders in the Indo-Pacific often complained that America’s expectation of Indo-Pacific countries to follow its footsteps of decoupling with China was inconsiderate and too much to expect, considering that no feasible alternative was offered by the U.S.. Unlike the Obama Administration, which made the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement as the centrepiece of its regional economic strategy, the Trump Administration had a greater emphasis on strengthening private sector businesses, investment ties and American entrepreneurship. While articulating a three priority plan for energy security, infrastructural development and digital connectivity, the enactment of the U.S. national laws such as the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development Act (BUILD) and the establishment of new U.S. International Development Finance Cooperation helped in identifying shared economic priorities. Not only did it reflect the focus on the Administration’s national agenda but also aimed at hedging against China’s state driven model that had drawn criticism over facilitating corruption, poor work environment and labour standards, and unsustainable levels of debts. Although the administration rolled out a series of Indo-Pacific-centric policies such as the ASIA Edge and the US-ASEAN Smart City Partnership, it failed to develop a responsible narrative for international trade in the region. Firstly, the Trump Administration’s ‘America first’ concept had mostly been through the concept of reciprocity on the international front. The former president’s repeated emphasis over the unfairness of U.S. relationships became problematic to its image as a comfortable ally. Although the Administration’s concern about market access problems and inequal burden-sharing were meritorious and certainly not unprecedented, previous U.S. Administrations often engaged with their foreign counterparts in discussions which rooted in the belief that U.S. alliances generated positive sum gains for both the United States and its partners. Trump’s rhetoric instead suggested the there existed a one way relationship in which U.S. received virtually nothing in return from the partnerships with American allies. By ignoring the ways in which its Asian allies have allowed the United States to pursue its regional interests at a lower relative cost, the former president’s rhetoric suggested that the U.S. is less motivated by the principle of fairness than by the pursuit of unilateral gains even at the expense of its friends. Secondly, rather than being motivated to induce economic prosperity to all, the Trump Administration’s approach had mostly been trying to create discrete winner and losers. By pursuing bilateral decisions and not inclusive multilateral agreements, the Trump administration reinforced this concept as a perception to most of its international partners. In addition, such agreements did very little to provide a foundation for the growth of the Indo-Pacific. While countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam majorly benefited from the partnership of the United States, countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan had experienced slow economic growth during the period. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir even went on to say, “We cannot afford to build these very expensive railway lines. Whether we like it or not, we have to go to the Chinese.” While the Americans were certainly a dependable ally, one cannot help but agree that the Chinese had emerged to be better allies economically by virtue of their attractive investment schemes. Lost in between, the perspective of smaller nations were best explained by the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2019, where he pointed out that the U.S.-China rivalry constrained the strategic space of smaller countries. This made it even more difficult for countries that were caught on crossroads not knowing how to maintain a balance of relations between the two superpowers. Therefore, a lot of countries in the Indo-Pacific became increasingly wary of both the U.S. and China; with some even opting for a more autonomous foreign policy path.


While the world welcomed a much-awaited change in the U.S. administration, Joe Biden inherited a raft of policy challenges vis-à-vis the coronavirus pandemic, stagnant American economy, a significant national debt and the extreme international polarisation induced by the Trump Administration. Although his focus has mostly been on inoculating the American population with the Coronavirus vaccine, he has already started taking significant steps in outlining his approach towards the Indo-Pacific strategy. The recent White House issue of the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance signalled the departure of the approach taken by the Trump Administration with respect to international cooperation; and emphasised the need to work on revitalising America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships. While this reiterated Biden’s belief in multilateralism and cooperation, the document also identified China as a “new threat” that “has rapidly become more assertive” and is “the only competitor potentially capable of combing its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” The fallout in the Alaska meeting between Secretary Blinken and State Councillor Yang Jiechi is a key example of the Biden Administration’s tough policy and negotiations with China. The president has also stepped-up engagement with Taiwan by maintaining high level contact with the Taiwanese officials and continued arms sales pursuant to the Taiwan Relations Act. The United States Department of Defense (DoD) review on China is another key move that is likely to result in the shifting of military resources from West Asia to the Indo-Pacific region to counter Chinese military dominance. Technology has also been prioritised by the Biden’s Administration as an area of competition with China. Domestically, the Administration is proposing ambitious spending on infrastructure, broadly defined to include more funds for research and development and targeting of particular technologies, and further spending on family-friendly policies such as improved health services and support to the aged. This becomes a significant policy move amidst the pandemic; increasing the scope for innovation for the United States and provide a significant alternative for its allies once into fruition. Internationally, the G7’s global infrastructure initiative, called the Build Back Better World, is a key policy that hopes to rival the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Through it, the G7 and its allies would coordinate in mobilising private sector capital in areas of climate, health, digital technology, gender equity and equality. The White House, in a press release, had announced that the United States would seek to utilise its national investment mechanism such as the Development Finance Corporation, USAID and U.S. Trade and Development Agency in an effort to not only build national jobs but also invest in middle and low income countries. While this would be much welcomed by countries in the Indo-Pacific who have had significant losses in view of the pandemic, it would also create better alternatives to Chinese investments that most countries had been complaining about, during the Trump regime. Although China is ahead of the U.S. in terms of handling the pandemic and providing assistance to other nations through its health diplomacy, its aggressive policies and regional activism has induced a negative public opinion among the American and global population. This makes it even more understandable for Biden, who would normally detest Trump policies, to continue the same in a more structured way. However, Biden’s approach to China has mostly been on the lines of a competitor than an adversary. This explains why the Biden Administration is willing to cooperate with China with regards to climate change initiatives. U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit to China and the joint statement on cooperation becomes a key example of his beliefs. Both countries have now agreed to cooperate for better implementation of climate change agreements and discuss concrete emission reduction actions such as energy storage, carbon capture and financing for developing countries to switch to low carbon energy sources. This would not only help smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific become beneficiary of two economic powers but also attain their climate change goals which have been long ignored by Trump during his presidency. In an effort to re-engage with regional powers of mutual objectives in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden Administration played a vital role in the success of organising the first ever QUAD Summit amongst the United States, India, Australia and Japan. Initially, when the Trump Administration revived the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between all four countries, it had only been limited to ministerial level talks on concerns ranging from China’s trade practices to its growing military power. However, with the head of states from all four countries virtually attending the conference and the key focus being on vaccine manufacturing under the Biden Administration, the summit proved to be of substantial utility by shifting focus to the need of public good. Although the United States strictly followed vaccine nationalism, India became a significant exporter of domestically manufactured COVID-19 vaccines to a lot of nations in the Indo-Pacific. Unfortunately, it was cut short when the country faced the brunt of the pandemic’s 2nd wave with the government opting to shift focus onto inoculating its citizens. At a time when Chinese vaccines were being questioned on its efficacies and vaccines produced by American manufacturing firms such as Moderna and Pfizer were subbed in as a backup, Biden Administration’s focus on vaccine diplomacy through QUAD came off as a sign of hope for many small countries in the Indo-Pacific. If realised, it would not only help India boost its manufacturing capability but also help export effective and affordable vaccines to smaller nations that are hoping for viable alternatives to aid their battle against the pandemic.


Although it is still too early to draw a concrete comparison, the Biden Administration seems to have a more effective Foreign Policy vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific. The domestic objective of enhancing American lives and the international need to re-engage in a more cooperative way has been quite beautifully balanced in their recent policy developments. However, the Administration has seemed to be more preoccupied with China and the QUAD rather than its ASEAN allies. Although President Biden tried reaching out to his ASEAN partners with Secretary Blinken holding regular bilateral talks, there is a growing sense among other regional states that the U.S. is keen on building an “Asian NATO” with like-minded powers even if this comes at the expense of the ASEAN. Moreover, diplomatic frictions with authoritarian populists in allied-countries such as the Philippines and Thailand have resulted in them becoming wary of American engagement. The Philippine President’s move to delay the restoration of the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement over human rights issues raised by the Biden Administration is a key example of such friction. There has also been a lingering frustration with the ASEAN’s decision to refuse denying diplomatic recognition or take tougher actions against the Junta Party following the military coup in Myanmar. Further, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was a clear indication that Asian states would press on, and even undertake the heavy lifting of drawing regional trade agreements without the leadership and participation of the United States. Although the Biden Administration has reiterated the role of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific, given the geopolitical sensitivity, it will likely take much more than a single facet of bilateral diplomacy to re-engage with the ASEAN post the Trump era. Further, the Biden administration should also work towards creating a possibility to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Although the Trump Administration left its precursor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) high and dry, the former U.S. President Barrack Obama suggested that the deal’s lower tariffs and increased market accessibility could have created better and affordable prices for consumers, increase cross border investment and boost US exports. As for the geostrategic value, the TPP would have ensured that the United States led the way on global trade rules. The deal would have generally provided for deep economic reforms and higher labour, environmental and health standard, which would have acted as an incentive for participant countries to adhered to these guidelines in order to gain access to new markets. Although the CPTPP does not continue all the provisions such as the one on intellectual property rights, the Biden Administration should consider holding negotiations as that would not only continue his domestic policy on catering to the middle class, but also renew the faith of Indo-Pacific countries on the Administration over regional economic agreements in the region. To conclude, with the new U.S. foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific still at its nascent stage, the Biden Administration does show a sharp contrast in the values of big power diplomacy in relation to the Trump Administration. As the world continues to venture itself in newer realms of international diplomacy, it is quite possible that President Biden will not only be able to rebuild the broken bridges that President Trump left behind, but also boost U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific to new heights.

Cover Image: AP Photo

About the author: As a student of international affairs, Swapneel Thakur strives to achieve perfection in every step of his career. He is often described by his peers as the most enthusiastic in uncovering the inherent complexities that exist in international politics.

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