A gaffe, a domestic political gambit, a cunning diplomatic stratagem or a simple moment of honesty: there are several ways to interpret Joe Biden’s pledge this week, during a visit to Tokyo, to use military force if Taiwan is attacked by China. What is clear is that the US president’s sabre-rattling against China was a great deal more prominent than his willingness to offer meaningful economic engagement with US partners in Asia. If the US is serious about winning the contest for influence in 21st-century Asia, that is the wrong way around.
Biden’s comments — the third time he has made similar remarks — appeared to reverse decades of US policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. A generous interpretation would say that was the intent; to deter aggression by an increasingly powerful China. However, that analysis was undermined by the White House, which wasted no time in rowing back yet again from the president’s words. Then on Tuesday, a joint fly-by of Chinese and Russian nuclear-capable bombers across the Sea of Japan — while Biden was in Tokyo meeting counterparts at the Quad security grouping summit — showed that any sabre-rattling America could do, they could do better.
Both incidents meant Biden’s first trip to Asia as president — a chance to bolster alliances and show the region is still his top foreign priority, despite the war in Ukraine — struggled to produce a positive agenda. That was always the risk when the centrepiece of the trip’s trade initiatives was the underwhelming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
It is a deal that does not include meaningful market access to the US but instead promises help with clean energy and common digital standards. The fact that 12 south-east Asian countries are participating is in no small part due to the efforts of Japan rather than because of the attractiveness of what the US is offering. At a time when China is striking large regional trade deals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the IPEF is obviously underpowered. It leaves Asian countries beyond the obvious US allies wondering why they should bother to engage.
They can read, as well as anybody else, the polls that show Biden’s approval rating heavily in negative territory. They assume he will be a lame duck after November’s midterm elections. And they must reckon with the possibility that the US will elect a Republican in 2024 — maybe even Donald Trump again — who will be just as bellicose on China while tearing up the feeble initiatives Biden has offered.
The US ought to do better. The IPEF could become the vehicle for a more meaningful regional trade and investment policy, but only if Biden is willing to give it some real content. The ideal would be for the US to come back to TPP, the deal that Trump pulled out of in 2017 and which has since been renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Biden, too, decided imports were politically toxic and opposition to the CPTPP in Congress seems insurmountable for now. China, meanwhile, is eager to join the CPTPP, though its path to membership will be long and fraught. The UK has also applied. If it is successful, it could find a useful role in brokering a US return.
But for the US to follow that path would first require Biden to want to shift the domestic political narrative on trade deals from one where they imperil American jobs to one where they help cement American security. If the US really wants to be the attractive superpower partner relative to China, it needs to elevate the diplomatic and economic sides of its engagement with Asia to the same level as its military commitment across the region.