While the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominates front pages, China’s growing dominance in Asia keeps many American political and business leaders awake at night. US efforts to stem Chinese influence keep getting sidetracked.
President Obama attempted to pivot US foreign policy toward Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was billed as a new generation trade pact that would outflank China. However, President Trump, in the name of his America First policy, walked away from the TPP and instead imposed a series of tariffs, most of which remain in place despite their failure to prevent technology theft or promote larger purchases of US farm products by China.
In his second year in office, President Biden is pushing the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to re-establish US economic leadership in Asia as a counterbalance to China. Biden describes China as an existential challenge to America’s continued global leadership, but only recently took his first trip as President to Asia to reinforce American influence. Then he tripped over his unscripted comments about militarily defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack, sending coverage of his new economic initiative to the back pages.
The pullout from Afghanistan, supplying weapons to Ukraine, sanctioning Russia for its invasion, holding together NATO and seeking increased oil supplies via Venezuela and Saudi Arabia have combined to divert Biden’s foreign policy attention from Asia, which is the fastest growing economic region in the world, with 60 percent of the world’s population living within 49 nations.
China has some natural advantages because of its size. However, its growing economic and military power under an autocracy that practices state capitalism has propelled its newfound dominance. The reach of China’s economic influence was evidenced during and after the coronavirus pandemic in unrelentingly disrupted supply chains that left American store shelves barren and contributed to global inflation.
Unless Washington’s economic statecraft improves, its influence in Asia will continue to ebb.
The Quad – the nickname for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that consists of Australia, India, Japan and the US – shares America’s concerns over China’s rising economic and military influence. Statistics explain why. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Pacific Index reveals China is now the largest trading partner for every Asian country. China has 2.5 times more trade volume in the region than the United States. Investment in Asia also reflects China’s rise. What has been key to US leverage in Asia is being offset by growing levels of Chinese investment through its Belt and Road Initiative, which is now almost equal to America’s investment.
The Quad formed in response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, but now have a broader agenda. In 2020, the navies from the four nations participated in a joint exercise, a reflection of their mutual maritime interests in the Pacific and Indian oceans, which is significant in light of China’s new naval station on the Cambodian coast of the Gulf of Thailand Biden called a virtual meeting of the Quad leaders in 2012 and agreed to form working groups on vaccines, climate change, technological innovation and supply-chain resilience. They met again as part of Biden’s Asian trip.
The four countries have expressed varying degrees of support for the “security” mission of the Quad. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conspicuously declined to call out Russia for invading Ukraine. Australia’s newly elected left-of-center Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a point of attending the most recent Quad meeting as one of his first official duties. Australia strengthened its military ties to the United States by agreeing to buy eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. Throughout the 2010s, Australia’s defense white papers expressed concern over a worsening security situation in the Indo-Pacific and the waning dominance of its longtime security guarantor, the United States.
Susannah Patton, project director for the Asia Pacific Index, said in a recent op-ed, “Competing with China in Asia won’t be easy. But it starts with recognizing that right now the United States is losing.”
Patton’s call to action: “Unless Washington’s economic statecraft improves, its influence in Asia will continue to ebb. Its uninspiring new regional economic plan aside, the Biden administration should summon the political courage to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s successor pact, making clear to US domestic opponents that it would be an important tool in countering China. It also needs to engage more aggressively with smaller but still important nonaligned countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific that China is steadily winning over.”
Giving higher priority to Asia and the longer-term consequences of a more assertive China will likely come at the expense of other geopolitical challenges. Following Patton’s advice about rejoining the new version of the TPP would force Biden to cross swords with his backers in organized labor. The compelling reason to make bolder moves in Asia is that China isn’t on pause, despite its zero-tolerance lockdowns of major cities such as Shanghai. Waiting much longer may convince nonaligned nations – and even some that lean toward the United States – to hedge their bets with China.