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Commentary – Biden’s Asia strategy: ‘Personnel is policy’



In the United States, where a change in administration is accompanied by a massive influx of political appointees across all areas of government, it is said that “personnel is policy.” This begs the question: Who will craft American foreign and defense policy — and particularly Asia policy — within the new Biden administration?


President Joe Biden has appointed 44-year-old Jake Sullivan to the post of national security adviser, giving him the responsibility for developing the overarching principles and direction of policy, as well as coordinating policy across governmental agencies. Sullivan previously served as national security adviser to Vice President Biden during then-President Barack Obama’s second term in office, and established his reputation as a skilled negotiator by playing a key role in concluding the Iran nuclear deal. As U.S. policy responses to China faltered, Sullivan recognized the need to develop a truly realistic China policy.


On the White House National Security Council, Sullivan will be assisted with Asia policy by Kurt Campbell, who has been appointed to the newly-created position of Coordinator of Indo-Pacific Affairs. Campbell is regarded as one of the best U.S. strategists and has built up a dense network of contacts across Asia.


As Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during Obama’s first term in office, Campbell was the architect of the U.S. “re-balancing” policy toward Asia. Campbell has voiced frustration with the fact that China’s offensives in the South China Sea and geoeconomic aggression prevented the fuller development of the re-balancing policy.


In a jointly authored article in Foreign Affairs, Sullivan and Campbell begin by acknowledging that the “era of engagement” with China “has come to an unceremonious close.” They go on to urge a dual strategy of “competition and coexistence” with China. Sullivan and Campbell define “coexistence” as “accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.” This could also be described as competitive coexistence.


Other members of the Biden administration might disagree. These include John Kerry, who served as Secretary of State during Obama’s second term, and Susan Rice, national security adviser during the same period. When it comes to China, both Rice and Kerry favor appeasement: They believe it is important to cooperate with China on global issues and prioritize maintaining a cooperative relationship with China over great power competition. Kerry and Rice have both joined the Biden administration as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and director of the Domestic Policy Council, respectively.


Kerry is hoping for China’s cooperation on climate change-related issues, but climate change also tops the political agenda of the Democratic Party’s left wing. In order to rebuild the post-Trump, post-pandemic America, however, Biden is touting a “foreign policy for the middle class.” This goal will likely influence the demands Rice makes of foreign policy. There is a real risk that the Biden administration will tilt toward protectionism in order to safeguard the workers who comprise the Democratic Party base and the farmers who could help expand the party base in agricultural areas.


We should also note the Europeanist lineage of top U.S. foreign policy makers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is one such Europe specialist. As Deputy Secretary of State during Obama’s second term, Blinken was responsible for Asia policy, and met quite regularly with Japan’s vice-minister for foreign affairs.


He is trusted by his Japanese counterparts. Blinken emphasizes values-based diplomacy and is passionate about protecting human rights. With reference to the Trump administration’s designation of China’s oppression of the Uighur population in Xinjiang as an act of “genocide,” Blinken replied, “That would be my judgement as well.”


Yet, the United States is now the biggest loser of the pandemic and is still reeling from the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Can it really demonstrate global leadership on human rights and democracy? The U.S. partnership with Europe, which has strengthened its opposition to China due to human rights concerns, will prove essential.


As China’s challenge to the international order and power becomes more global in scope, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept (FOIP) developed by the Abe administration and backed by the Trump administration could be a useful means of competing with China. Of course, the top priority for Europeanists is the revival of NATO, which languished under Trump. They are unhappy, however, with the fact that Europe lacks an assertive China policy and hasn’t taken the 5G threat seriously either (in the words of former NATO Ambassador Nick Burns).


Now is the time for Japan to deepen its policy discussions with the Europeanists. In fact, the leader of this Europeanist faction is no other than President Biden himself, a descendant of Irish immigrants. At the 2019 Munich Security Conference, Biden promised that “we will be back.” His words were met with a standing ovation.


On the subject of China, Biden has typically been seen as a “panda hugger” — in other words, a proponent of appeasement. Yet Biden is a child of Congress above all else. His China policy will likely be informed by prevailing sentiments in Congress. Sentiments in Congress will likely demand the Biden administration be focused on trade and human rights, but it is precisely in those two areas that perhaps the United States will be most at odds with Asian countries. If the United States continues down that path, it will unfortunately continue to be left behind and out of Asia, particularly on trade issues.


Considering the weak domestic position of the United States, its demands for human rights could be perceived as self-righteous and end up alienating those countries with poor records on those matters. Will the Biden administration manage to synthesize diverse ideas and influences and cooperate with both Japan and Europe to arrive at a unified China policy? This is the greatest question surrounding the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda.


Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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