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Biden and US policy in the Indo-Pacific

Written by: (Contributed) on 23 January 2021


As President Biden enters the White House to begin a four-year term of office, the domestic threat of civil war with armed conflict has begun to ebb away.

Foreign policy considerations, however, still continue to present worrying real-war scenarios, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region where US-led initiatives to counter China have resulted in an escalation of diplomatic hostilities.

Serious studies of the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific neighbourhood reveal the US will be highly unlikely to make a successful challenge in economic terms. Attention must, therefore, be raised about the continued threat of war in the region as US-led diplomatic tensions are unlikely to subside from the previous period.

The successful inauguration of President Biden has marked the end of the Trump administration and following the tumultuous events on Capitol Hill earlier in the month, the failure of his supporters to organise protest rallies has seen the very real threat of civil war quickly ebb away. In fact, many of Trump's supporters appear to be actively shunning him, for fear of being associated with a political failure who has serious character flaws. (1)

Elsewhere, however, foreign policy initiatives from the previous period in the Indo-Pacific region continue to present difficult problems. The region has been the power-house of the global economy for decades and the US has experienced the rapid rise of China in recent years as a competitor. It has resulted in the US seeing its traditional hegemonic position challenged by China, which has used much more sophisticated diplomacy toward countries across the vast region.

A recent World Bank report has revealed the US economy is likely to contract by 3.6 per cent this year together with the Euro-zone contracting 7.4 per cent resulting in a global economy decline of 4.3 per cent. (2) China's economy, by contrast, is expected to grow by between nearly 8 or 9 per cent in 2021. (3)

The economic statistics reveal serious political implications for US regional diplomatic positions.

Behind the economic statistics lies the outcome of the Trump administration's unsuccessful trade war with China which resulted in the latter continuing to increase its share of global GDP from 14.2 per cent in 2016, to 16.8 per cent last year. (4) The position of the US with the same statistical equation has revealed its position has declined slightly from 22.3 per cent in 2016 to 22.2 per cent in late 2020. (5)

China's share with global export of goods is still continuing to increase from 13.7 per cent in late 2019 to 15.4 per cent last November. (6)

The so-called US trade war toward China can best be regarded as the outcome of Cold War diplomatic positions and having failed to achieve objectives; in fact, like virtually everything associated with the outgoing Trump administration, it was high on pompous and delusional rhetoric and deficient when measured for practical outcomes.

The legacy of the Trump administration's trade war with China has, however, presented the incoming Biden administration with a major problem. By pursuing the position laid down by Trump, the US is likely to experience a further reduction in the traditional hegemonic position. Whether Biden chooses to pursue a more conciliatory diplomatic line with China in the Indo-Pacific remains, as yet, to be established, although it would appear a likely scenario under the present circumstances.

There is also a longer-term legacy to be taken into consideration.

The present problem has been exacerbated by the legacy of the previous Bush administrations when Donald Rumsfeld was Defence Secretary nearly twenty years ago. Under the guise of a Global Transformation of Defence and Security (GTDS), the US sought to develop Japan as a northern regional hub for 'US interests' with Australia as a southern counterpart. The triangular US-led diplomatic GTDS framework is now fully operational with additional support from India to create the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or 'quad'.

Much of the US-led regional diplomacy has been channelled through these hubs during the Trump administration; economic competition from China has, therefore, had far-reaching defence and security considerations as China increasingly presents a credible challenge to traditional US hegemonic positions.

A common feature of the regional diplomacy pursued by Trump was to foist greater and greater responsibilities onto the hubs, as a means of the US cutting expenditure and general ineptitude on the part of his administration. Japan, Australia and India have, therefore, been drawn closer to US-led Cold War positions during the past four years. The moves have been accompanied by increased defence budgets of military equipment designed to be compatible with US-led facilities.

Japan has had to take greater responsibility for its own defence and security provision and have Clause 9 of the pacifist constitution 're-interpreted' to enable its inclusion in US-led regional operations. An official high-level diplomatic statement about the matter noted:

          US and Japanese officials announced an agreement on Monday that would extend
          the reach of Japan's military – now limited to its own defence – allowing it to act
          when the US or countries US forces are defending are threatened. (7)          
In Australia, the sycophantic nature of the Morrison coalition government in Canberra toward the Trump administration has been both nauseating and counter-productive; serious problems have arisen in many areas of the economy and society including blockages to trade-flows and witch-hunts of people regarded as being pro-China in the present US-led Cold War.

It is, therefore, no surprise to find the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security conducting, at present, a high-level inquiry into academia, academic circles and their association with figures regarded as having involvement with China. (8) It has already been noted, however, that 'much of what Canberra knows about hostile Chinese government activities comes from classified intelligence', tending to indicate the outcome of the inquiry will be opaque and not straightforward. (9)  

A further factor the Trump administration foisted upon Australia was the decision to not allow Huawei to develop 5G telephone facilities, due to its supposed links with the Chinese military. The decision will, inevitably, prove counter-productive; technological de-coupling of the US-led systems and China will result in a world of divided communications facilities between two technological groups, those which are US and European orientated and those which are China-based across their Indo-Pacific neighbourhood. (10)

It has already been suggested within the next decade there will be two internet systems; Australia will remain part of the Five Eyes although communications elsewhere might involve using a second sim-card or computer program to gain access into a different telecommunications system.

India, likewise, has had problems with contested territorial areas and China, which has no wish to have US-led military facilities placed near its borders.

The diplomatic record of the past four years of the Trump administration pursued through its regional hubs is not an impressive history. In fact, it has already led some of the previous supporters of Trump to state he 'will go down as a total failure'. (11)

The most distinguishable feature of the Trump administration in the Indo-Pacific region has been the transition from traditional diplomatic and trade relations toward more aggressive military planning; it has presented worrying signs of logical and likely real-war outcomes.

The Australian Defence Strategic Update for 2020, for example, revealed the country was in a 'security environment … increasingly characterised by grey zone competition; state behaviour that is aggressive but often covert, or at least deniable, and falls short of acts of war'. (12) The serious escalation of diplomatic hostilities has included numerous US-led military exercises targeting sensitive areas of the region: the Taiwan Straits, Korean Peninsula, South China Seas. While the exercises are usually based in computer-simulations, they also include provision for 'real-war scenarios'.

During the Trump administration the Pentagon was allowed to push hawkish positions in the Indo-Pacific, the incoming Biden presidency will have to deal with an appalling legacy of war-mongering conducted in the name of regional diplomacy.

It is against this backcloth of increasingly worrying defence and security considerations and the very real threat of real-war scenarios that Australia should seriously consider an independent foreign policy!  

1.     Donald Trump's first 24 hours outside office: Deserted and mocked, The New Daily, 22 January 2021.
2.     China only big economy to grow in 2020, Australian, 19 January 2021.
3.     World Bank projects, CGTN., 6 January 2021; and, China powers ahead while the world reels, Australian, 15 January 2021.  
4.     Australian, ibid., 15 January 2021.
5.     Ibid.
6.     Ibid.
7.     Japan to extend military reach beyond self-defence, The Age (Melbourne), 29 April 2015.
8.     China has recruited 'hundreds' of academics, Australian, 20 January 2021.
9.     We can't combat China's 'grey zone' war while polarised, Australian, 20 January 2021.
10.   Watch Biden's US-China dealings very closely, says trade expert, Australian, 20 January 2021.   
11.   New Daily, op.cit., 22 January 2021.
12.   'Grey zone', Australian, op.cit., 20 January 2021.


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