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Why America Can’t Do China Policy | Insight

The old adage that common enemies help unify and direct democratic policy-making won’t be enough to sustain a successful China policy.

The Briefing: Pivoting to Asia…Again? Finally?

  • Biden's Trip
    • It's his first tour of Asia, visiting South Korea and Japan
    • He wants to show commitment to prioritizing Asia, even after Russia's invasion of Ukraine
    • The trip will highlight security and trade
  • Security Squabbles
    • Fears of Chinese and North Korean aggression are front and center
    • Beijing has recently struck security agreements with the Solomon Islands and Kiribati
    • And Pyongyang continues to test new missiles against international protocols
  • Economic Commitments
    • At a recent summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Biden pledged $150 million in investments for member states
    • But the centerpiece of Biden's trip will be the unveiling of a more comprehensive "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework" (IPEF)
    • Something like IPEF has long been anticipated, but spectators are skeptical of American seriousness

The Big Question: Why won’t the US put economy and diplomacy first?

As I’ve written before, and as we discussed in our podcast conversation with former CIA counterterrorism analyst Brent Giannotta yesterday, the US is behind the curve when it comes to economic and diplomatic politics in Asia.

Take the investment in ASEAN mentioned above: $150 million dollars of investment for ten countries. China recently promised $1.5 billion. About 20% of ASEAN’s trade is with China while a little more than 10% of it is with the US. The average GDP of countries that make up ASEAN—like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—have consistently outpaced global GDP growth averages. The United States’ failure to tighten economic ties with these countries is—in addition to a missed economic opportunity—a potential major strategic loss to China.

While Joe Biden seems interested in reorienting those nations’ economic incentives away from Beijing, expectations for the IPEF seem low throughout Asia. The IPEF—released today but after the time of writing—is expected to be a major underdelivery. It’s not clear how many nations are planning to become signatories, it’s likely to set “standards” rather than establish binding economic commitments, and some have even alleged that it’s likely to be mostly composed of old proposals in new packaging.

On the diplomatic and political front, the Biden administration also seems to be failing. Despite much ado about a contest between democracy and autocracy, Biden has been mostly quiet on the anti-democratic implications of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidential victory in the Philippines, which relied in large part on nostalgia for Marcos’ dictatorial father.

Security seems to be the one area where the US is active. In Japan, Biden will meet with the leaders of the Quad, a security pact between the US, Australia, Japan, and India, widely understood to be an American response to growing Chinese military power. He’s also been in close dialogue with South Korea’s hawkish new president, Yoon Seok-yul, about recent North Korean missile tests. At home, the American defense budget is at a record high.

Now, security is inextricable from economic and political commitments, but it’s hard to deny that there’s an imbalance in American strategy. So, what gives?

The Theory: A little paradox.

I have my own theory of domestic politics that I think partially explains this. It’s just one factor among many but one worth exploring.

There’s a folk theory that common enemies facilitate coordination between people or groups who might not otherwise be on the same team. Think “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And it often seems that democratic politics bears evidence to this idea. While political parties might squabble domestically, they tend to have an easier time working together when they feel that vital national security interests are threatened. For better or for worse, Democrats and Republicans were more able to put aside domestic disagreements when it came to World War II, the Cold War, and the so-called War on Terror.

But paradoxically, I think focusing on a common enemy can lead to less-than-optimal courses of action. When an adversary looms large over politics, it can lead political actors to jump to conclusions, ignoring necessary intermediate steps—ones that might be essential but are ignored because they aren’t sexy or heroic enough given the perceived threat.

In a democracy as polarized as ours, it’s easier for someone like Joe Biden to get both voters and politicians on board with a common agenda if you emphasize objectives—say, keeping ahead of China—over complicated and occasionally controversial intermediate steps—say, an economic agenda that involves deepening trade with countries that are not China and spending money on people other than your own citizens. In other words, the big ideas and lofty goals that get people on the same page often don’t match up with hard policies necessary to get there. As a result, policy-making may take the path of least resistance and end up looking like empty economic platitudes and a security-focused agenda because that’s just what you’re good at.

The Takeaway: A Way Out?

None of this isn’t to say that the US shouldn’t prepare itself for some kind of military conflict with China, whether direct or indirect. It should be well-positioned to deter Chinese military action against Taiwan or in the South China Sea, and to do so it makes sense to tighten its security relationships with the Quad and other Asian states.

But the US has an opportunity to reduce the risk of military conflict if it’s able to tighten its political and economic relationships in the Indo-Pacific such that more countries in the region stand prepared to condemn and counter threats to peace and order rather than sit on the sidelines. And if conflict does occur, the US will need all the allies it can get. But as long as it does what’s easy—economic platitudes and unthinking devotion to defense dollars—rather than what’s necessary, it won’t improve its position in the region.

I do think it’s possible to escape the paradox the US has found itself in. The Biden administration seems seriously interested in deepening its economic and political ties with Asian countries. The policymakers currently in charge seem to genuinely care about democracy. The only question is whether they can pull themselves off of autopilot and deliver policies of inventiveness consummate to the exceptional challenge we face.

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