Even since White House got its 46th President confirmed in Joe Biden, Capitol Hill’s diplomatic circles started buzzing about US foreign policy scenarios, with the most talked about being America’s would-be engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. Much of the academic and strategic affairs-linked discussions are coincidental, as Tokyo remains US’ strongest ally still and a vital partner for its Pacific diplomacy.
But will a change in leadership change US foreign policy too? That is the question.
During President Donald Trump’s administration, the US had been belligerent and “near territorial” against China’s dominance and growing threat, which many, including Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted that he “failed to perceive China as a threat”, hinting at the territorial dominance Beijing has been up to in the past decade. The four-nation Quad, a comprehensive security partnership involving the US, India, Japan and Australia defined the level of strategic partnership the political leadership had put in place to “rattle and keep in check” China’s assertiveness and “illegitimate dominance over ASEAN and East Asian nations.”
But now with both Washington DC and Tokyo having new leaders in Joe Biden and Yoshihide Suga, respectively, diplomacy and security experts are watching the new “Biden-Suga bonhomie” reaffirming the “strategic ties between the two nations” as the two leaders talked last week. The US President-elect assured the Japanese PM that Washington would help defend a group of Japan-administered islets in the East China Sea under a bilateral security treaty. It was enough to trigger a rebuke from Beijing, which was long hoping for a new US President to normalise ties. Suga, who is seen to be eager to establish a relationship with Biden, said “the alliance is crucial amid the increasingly difficult security environment surrounding Japan, as well as for the peace and prosperity of the international community”. In September, when he assumed power, many had raised doubts about Suga’s “closed global outlook”, unlike Abe’s “all-out diplomacy”, and questioned if he would have the same level of relations with the new US leadership, given his own political concerns at home.
Those watching this key sector of international diplomacy confirm that it is “business as usual” between the US and Japan and Biden in all respect will “continue the Trump era Indo-Pacific policy”. Most interestingly, some say that “India’s role as an influencer in Pacific diplomacy and security apparatus” gets even stronger and demanding. And this continuity of strategic partnership involving the Quad nations, including India in a lead role comes from a single threat factor—China.
Aparna Pande, South Asia expert and Director in Hudson Institute says: “India’s Act East policy and Indo-Pacific policy will continue in full swing in the months ahead. Despite the change in leadership in the US and Japan, the global realities have not changed. The peer competition with China is here to stay and both President elect Biden and PM Suga understand that reality.”
Pande added, “National interests are what determine foreign policies of nations, not personal bonds and relations between leaders. So the Biden-Modi and the Modi-Suga relationship will have the same strategic component even if it lacks the personal bonhomie. President elect Biden spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi just the other day and from the wide ranging conversation they had one knows that this relationship will continue to deepen. The same can be said of PM Modi’s conversations with PM Suga.”
Agrees Michael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson Deputy Director and Asia expert: “I envision a fair amount of continuity between the Trump and Biden Indo-Pacific policies. The singular focus on countering China will remain in place, though Biden will likely pursue it with softer diplomacy than Trump.”
For Japan, US’ strong policy toward China is welcome. Currently, Japan is watching Biden’s move carefully, says Satoru Nagao, another Hudson Institute scholar and an expert on US-Japan-India issues. Nagao elaborates his point by saying, “Many experts focus on differences between governments. For example, compared with the Obama administration, the Trump administration has increased their defence budget. However, if experts focus on similarities between the Obama administration and Trump administration, we can see what will happen in the Biden administration. Both the Obama administration and Trump administration requested their allies and friendly countries to share the security burden. The priority of US security strategy is China, but not Russia or terrorists now. And now is the proper time for the US to act if it wants to win the competition with China. Therefore, despite the Biden administration not wanting to share the same policy with the Trump administration, it is expected that they will share the long term goal of the US’ China policy.”
But equally gaining interest among these experts is the future of Quad from here as a lot of speculation is on how the Biden administration takes it forward amidst the growing threat from China in the region and to global security.
Some like Kugelman feels the emphasis on the Quad will continue: “But I can envision Biden trying to build a broader coalition within ASEAN countries. Given that many of these nations are already concerned about China, it shouldn’t be that tough of a task for Biden…There is a strong political consensus in both countries that views China as a major threat to each of their interests. Unlike India, Japan is a treaty ally of Washington’s, and so there is a much higher ceiling for security cooperation vis-à-vis the China threat.”
Pande sees the interplay between US regional interests and its global interests compelling DC diplomats to invest in Quad as ever. “The peer competition with China is here to stay. We must not forget that the Obama-Biden administration had championed the pivot to Asia and so Indo Pacific or Asia Pacific will remain critical even under a Biden administration, irrespective of the nomenclature used. The US administration has long invested in Quad going back to 2007-2008 and it took almost a decade for Quad to institutionalize. The Biden administration will remain as invested in Quad as the Trump administration.”
The point gets more strengthened with the recent announcement of the 1st Fleet being activated and deployed in the Indo Pacific, most likely near Singapore, showing that the US is sending a message to both friends and enemies that the US is here to stay. Additionally, recent remarks by Secretary Mike Pompeo to “institutionalize” Quad on the lines of NATO indicate what kind of goal the US is planning for the Quad.
Nagao says that there is a message in India announcing that Malabar exercises will include all four Quad partners—India, US, Japan and Australia. “Indeed, this is a symbolic but important step. There are three reasons. Firstly, this is an achievement that long-term efforts have made. Australia participated in the Malabar exercises in 2007. This revival of exercises by the four countries is not just merely revival of old cooperation. Indeed, Quad cooperation in 2007 and Quad cooperation in 2020 are a little different. However, by 2020, perception has changed. China has advanced their claim very aggressively. For example, China has ignored the verdict of the international court and continued to build seven fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea. Especially during the Covid-19 crisis, China has tried to exploit this timing to provoke its neighbours. As a result, Quad countries have accelerated their cooperation.” Nagao added a vital point: “There is a possibility that the Quad will be more powerful. The view from the context, level of China’s aggressiveness is the main source of power to create Quad. As a result, recent escalation of the US-China competition will show strong influence towards Quad cooperation.”
But in all this, the strong defence engagement between New Delhi and Tokyo as between PMs Narendra Modi and Abe earlier, seeks continuity and, perhaps, at a much intense level now.
Kugelman is hopeful for a strong Indo-Japan defence cooperation. He says: “Over the last decade so, it’s no exaggeration to describe the Japan-India relationship having been the fastest growing partnership in Asia. I don’t necessarily see the momentum slowing down. The realities of Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomacy—resulting in the Ladakh crisis for India and aggressive Chinese moves in the waters of the Indo Pacific for Japan—amplify the compelling need for the two countries to continue to work closely together.”
Nagao sees a great role for India in the Indian Ocean: “If India has capabilities, Japan and the US will be able to release themselves from the heavy burden of safeguarding the Indian Ocean and can deploy more military forces in the East China Sea and the South China Sea to maintain the military balance. Also, India will be set for a key role in the Indian Ocean. Recently, India has shown active presence. India will be a new hope for Japan, the US and Australia. In turn, Japan, the US and Australia should share the know-how related to anti-submarine capabilities and enhance India’s capability as a security provider.”