May 24, 2022

CNAS Responds: Takeaways from President Biden's first Asia trip

By Richard Fontaine, Lisa Curtis, Emily Kilcrease, and Jacob Stokes

As President Joe Biden concludes his first trip to Asia since taking office, the Center for a New American Security experts weighed in on the geopolitical, economic, and strategic significance of this debut tour

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh, cedinburgh@cnas.org.

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:

Taiwan and trade dominated President Biden’s Asia trip. During an otherwise beneficial visit, there was too much of the former and too little of the latter.

The president’s Taiwan comments mark the third time he has publicly committed to defend Taiwan if attacked. Each time, the White House quickly insists that there is no change in the policy of strategic ambiguity. The far more reasonable conclusion is that he means what he says, and that the president sets the policy. Biden or a senior official should, sometime soon, give a speech fully clarifying the American approach.

In the meantime, Biden rolled out the administration's long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). What, exactly, is the IPEF? It’s easier to say what it is not—it's not the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not a digital trade agreement, not an opportunity for market access. It is better than nothing, but how much better remains unclear. And in no way will it fill the yawning gap in American trade policy toward Asia. In the best case, it will represent a step on the way to a more ambitious approach to U.S. economic leadership in the region.

It was good for the president to go to Asia, and doubly so while so much attention remains riveted by the war in Europe. The continued strengthening of the Quad is a major development, and signaling U.S. engagement and presence is vital. Yet America’s to-do agenda in the Indo-Pacific remains long.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:

Today’s convening in Tokyo of the second in-person Quad summit in less than a year is a clear signal that the Quad, in the five years since its revival, has become the linchpin of the United States’ strategy to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and to counter increased Chinese aggression and hegemony. Reaffirming its, “resolve to uphold the international rules-based order,” and specifically condemning, “…militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities,” sends a clear message that the Quad will defend regional nations against Chinese intimidation and infringement of their sovereignty.

The Quad announced a significant new initiative to monitor Indo-Pacific seaways and enhance collective maritime domain awareness (MDA), adding to the group’s six established areas of priority—vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate, space, infrastructure, and cybersecurity. The announcement of the MDA initiative is noteworthy, as it seeks to bring together the nations of Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific Islands to better protect their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, in which China has recently increased aggressive maritime activities. The initiative demonstrates that the Quad will not shy away from actions to assert its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and could move toward a more security-focused agenda, if the need arises. In recent years, China has started throwing its weight around the region through aggressive maritime actions that seek to assert its expansive maritime claims.

While the joint statement released by the Quad leaders mentions regional challenges like North Korea and Myanmar, it is suspiciously quiet on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is a nod to Indian sensitivities on the issue due to its historically close relationship and continued dependence on Russian military gear. However, current patience toward India’s reluctance to criticize Russia comes with the other Quad members’ expectation that New Delhi will continue to reduce defense purchases from Russia and gradually shift away from Moscow. In any case, there will be diminishing returns from India’s neutral stance as Russia becomes increasingly isolated and sanctions take their toll on the Russian economy.

Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:

After months of preparatory work, the initial line-up and agenda for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) was announced during the president's trip. Administration officials tout the IPEF as the "most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region," comprising 40 percent of global GDP. Word for word, that is nearly identical to the rhetoric and GDP statistic used to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), when the United States was still an active proponent of that deal, which has since moved on without the United States. Yet the sectoral coverage of the IPEF is significantly smaller than the TPP, the final form of any future agreement remains undecided, and IPEF partners are primarily joining with an attitude that the IPEF is better than nothing. The administration dings free trade traditionalists for waxing nostalgic about the TPP. They will have an uphill battle to convince U.S. trading partners that the IPEF is a better deal.

Promising IPEF initiatives include work on supply chains, including an early warning system to detect disruptions in critical sectors. That's a clever idea borne out of pandemic-induced disruptions and not one that has been included in traditional trade agreements. In other areas, there are clear missed opportunities. Despite stakeholder requests and the central role of IPEF participants in many critical technology areas, greater cooperation on export controls does not seem to have made the cut. Digital trade was rightly included, but the United States will have its work cut out for it to convince countries like India to drop long-standing digital trade barriers and promote truly open flows of data across borders. The flexibility of the IPEF model will work against the United States if partners can pick and choose which commitments to take on. Similarly, U.S. negotiators are seeking stronger labor and environmental protections, which are essential elements of a high-standard agreement. The best model that the United States has is the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), an agreement that broke new ground in these areas and that passed Congress with broad bipartisan support. IPEF partners are highly unlikely to agree to similar standards absent the incentive of stronger access to the U.S. market.

Jacob Stokes, Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:

President Biden’s remarks about helping defend Taiwan in the case of an attack by China have dominated the headlines coming out of his first trip to Asia as president. Those comments appeared to contradict the stated U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity regarding how Washington would respond to such a scenario. This remains the case, despite subsequent official clarifications that America’s “one China policy,” including the strategic ambiguity component, remains unchanged. Administration officials contend the president was referring to the U.S. commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to make available to Taiwan “defense articles and defense services … to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Still, Biden’s statement threw fuel on a raging debate about whether to formally abandon strategic ambiguity in favor of strategic clarity. Maintaining strategic ambiguity—however threadbare—remains the best approach for four reasons. First, it retains the option for U.S. intervention in a time, place, and manner of Washington’s choosing to address what the TRA says would be a “grave concern” to U.S. interests. Such flexibility could be useful in responding to grey zone challenges from Beijing, whereas China could use incremental steps to undermine the security commitments that come along with strategic clarity. Second, keeping strategic ambiguity allows Japan’s security policy debate on Taiwan to progress without pressuring Tokyo to say exactly how Japan would respond to a Taiwan contingency. Third, it prevents Beijing from claiming that Washington has meaningfully changed the cross-Strait status quo, which could contribute to a casus belli for China, albeit an illegitimate one.

Fourth and most critically, Taiwan’s material capability to defend itself, along with the population’s will to fight, will be the decisive factors in deterring aggression from China. Russia’s war against Ukraine has injected new and much-needed urgency into Taiwan’s campaign to build up its military and whole-of-society preparedness. The United States and like-minded partners should sustain that momentum and focus on helping Taiwan bolster its own defenses rather than formally change U.S. declaratory policy. In this way, actions can speak louder than words while doing more to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Emily Kilcrease

    Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics and Security Program

    Emily Kilcrease is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at CNAS. Her research focuses on the U.S.-China economic relationship; alignment...

  • Jacob Stokes

    Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Jacob Stokes is a Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, East Asian security affairs, an...