Can America Sustain Its Acceleration Pace in Asia?

Author: Ryan Haas, Brookings Institution

Last year was a strong year for US foreign policy in Asia. Washington strengthened key alliances, improved relations with key partners, advanced institutional innovation in forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and used a favorable diplomatic calendar to improve its position in the region — all of which re-normalized relations with Beijing.

These developments are the dividends of the Biden administration's Asia strategy. Biden's cabinet focused on domestic issues in 2021 and used 2022 to align more closely with key allies and partners. These efforts lay the groundwork for the US to increase its presence in Asia by 2023.

The United States improved its relations with Indonesia and Vietnam, two strong and emerging players in Southeast Asia. Deepened its relationship with India, especially in technology and defense sectors. The United States, working with key allies such as Australia, also strengthened its presence in the Pacific Islands.

Washington skillfully managed potential regional flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps most importantly, it made progress in improving relations with and with allies. Biden and his team are actively engaged with counterparts in Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida, South Korean President Yoon and President Biden decided to deepen trilateral cooperation. Camp David summit A banner was the crowning achievement of the year.

With these gains, the United States found firmer footing in its relations with China. After a tumultuous first half of 2023, Washington and Beijing reopened diplomatic channels and coordinated a productive leader-level engagement between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting in San Francisco.

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Biden and Xi reaffirmed their mutual interest in managing tensions and limiting the risk of escalation. After US Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Brown held a video conference with People's Liberation Army Joint Chiefs of Staff General Liu Zhenli on 21 December 2023, the two militaries resumed high-level contact.

A key question heading into 2024 is whether the Biden administration can sustain American momentum in Asia. In doing so it faces enormous challenges. The first challenge is the diplomatic calendar. None of the major annual summits regularly attended by US leaders address America's regional strategy. Italy will host the G7, Brazil will host the G20, Laos will convene the East Asia Summit and Peru will host APEC. With President Biden running for re-election in 2024, it is unlikely that he will spend meaningful time in Asia ahead of the US presidential election in November 2024.

Washington will also have to deal with the consequences of events outside Asia. If the Biden administration cannot continue to support Ukraine's defense against Russian aggression, it will create opportunities for Beijing to sell a narrative in Asia that the United States is absent and unreliable. If the conflict between Israel and Hamas widens or escalates, the US leadership will come under further pressure. Events outside Asia risk downward pressure on US leadership in Asia.

Another challenge is the unresolved debate within the US about its role in the world. The American public is flirting with another specific period of isolation. Whereas 65 percent While liberals say it's best for America to act in the world, only 30 percent of conservatives and 43 percent of moderates agree. The gap between conservative and liberal views of America's role in the world has widened from 17 percent in 2020 to 35 percent in 2023. This growing ideological polarization could limit the Biden administration's political room to maneuver in an election year.

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These restrictions are more visible in trade. The lack of a credible trade and economic agenda for Asia remains the Biden administration's biggest weakness. Political and national security imperatives will continue to drive America's approach to trade. Don't expect an explosion of creativity or boldness on trade from the Biden administration in 2024.

There will also be flashpoints and risks that require constant management. These include North Korea's expected saber-rattling, China's response to Taiwan's January 2024 election and disputes in the South China Sea.

In their relations, the United States and China seek to minimize the effects of interdependence. As they focus on addressing their own internal challenges and weaknesses, they seek partners to provide protection against each other's competition. US partners will lend their support to further competitive measures against China as long as they are confident in the direction of US strategy beyond 2024.

The outcome of the 2024 US elections will color America's position in Asia for years to come. Given the split nature of the electorate, the result will be close. It certainly guarantees that 2024 will be very interesting.

Ryan Haas is Senior Fellow, Goo Chair in Taiwan Studies and Director of the China Center in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

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