America’s tactical multilateralism for Asia and its consequences

The Biden administration has made building back confidence in the United States as a source of global security and stability a central goal of its foreign policy. As this objective is pursued in the Asia Pacific within the framework of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it is closely intertwined with competition with China in the region and beyond. Biden officials have promised to engage vigorously in regional diplomacy and deepen the US role in regional multilateralism. However, the competitive thrust of the administration’s policies in the region make it prone to pursue coalitions of like- minded countries in activities that counter China’s regional initiatives. The risk is that this weakens the hard-won regionalism that enables regional collective action, ultimately leaving the region more vulnerable to exploitation by a regional hegemon.

The Biden administration has made restoring confidence in the United States as a source of global security and stability a central goal of its foreign policy. As this objective is pursued in the Asia Pacific, it is closely intertwined with US strategic competition with China in the region and beyond. On the one hand, Biden administration officials have promised to engage vigorously in regional diplomacy and deepen the US role in regional multilateralism in order to support a stable international system.[1] On the other, the administration is committed to vigorous competition with China and has retained much of its predecessor’s Indo- Pacific framework. To the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” construct, aimed at creating a broad front of allies and strategic partners against Chinese assertiveness, the Biden administration has added commitments to promoting democracy and liberal values. Unlike the Trump administration, it has also articulated a willingness to work with China “where it is in American interests”. However, its FOIP concept does not envision a grand regional bargain with China;[2] rather, administration officials have described the outcome of US policy toward China as reaching “favorable terms of existence”.[3]

Despite some signs of a reversal in the faltering confidence across the region in American leadership that accelerated during the Trump administration, skepticism abounds about the capacity of the United States to play a durable and constructive role in regional security and economic integration.[4] States in the region have begun to adapt to intensifying US-China antagonism and the more fluid regional environment to which this has given rise.[5] In this context, the Biden administration’s emerging preference for competing with China through tactical multilateralism–its engagement with sets of partners to solve discrete problems alongside its commitment to regional initiatives that largely exclude China, like the Quad–carries risks. As actors in the Asia-Pacific seek to advance their interests within an uncertain and competitive milieu, proliferating US-led or US-engaged initiatives reduce incentives across the region to invest in bedrock regional institutions. Thus, despite rhetorical support for multilateralism in the region, the Biden administration’s tactical multilateralism risks weakening rather than strengthening the efficacy of existing regimes.

America – Asia’s Pivoting Power?

Cycles of American isolationism, the prioritization of Washington’s interests in Europe and the Middle East over those in Asia, and tensions with China have long buffeted US commitments to the Asia-Pacific, sometimes with high costs to the United States. The Trump Administration’s “America First” doctrine, with its confrontational rhetoric toward allies as well as adversaries,[6] marked the most profound disruption to the US approach to Asia, begun after US-China rapprochement and the end of the Vietnam war, that had made Asia policy so vital to US interests along multiple dimensions. As an architecture of institutional arrangements to facilitate stability and promote economic integration emerged across East Asia, the United States joined many regional bodies as an observer and, in a number of cases, namely the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as a full member.

At times Washington has used the weight of its regional influence to seek to constrain the development of new mechanisms and institutions that might challenge its capacity to exercise a preeminent impact on regional agenda- setting—the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a recent example. In other instances, it has sought to strengthen key regional institutions and support the emergence of new ones to promote regional cooperation. Examples include President Bill Clinton’s initiative of the annual APEC Economic Leaders Meetings or support for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), first introduced by the George W. Bush administration and then made a key effort by President Barack Obama.

When the Obama administration assessed that the United States needed to pivot its policy focus to the Asia-Pacific as “a top priority”,[7] it did so in a number of ways. It not only bolstered its regional military commitments and the hub and spokes alliances and connected web of strategic partnerships that the United States has long seen as bedrocks of regional stability. It also chose to promote the TPP in an effort to weave the economies of the western hemisphere formally into East Asia and, for Washington, to serve as something of an antidote to the growing density of free trade agreements across the region that included China but to which the United States was not a party. In the context of rising tensions between Japan as well as many Southeast Asian states and China over territorial disputes and concerns about China’s outsized economic power in the region, the TPP offered a way for the US to play a leading role in shaping a set of new forward-thinking rules for trade and intellectual property protection in the Asia Pacific between itself, East Asia and other Pacific economies. The Trump administration’s decision to reject the agreement shattered confidence in Washington’s commitments across the region. Political endorsement of the TPP had been hard won in many regional capitals and eleven of the original twelve signatories to the TPP concluded a version of the agreement without the United States, renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).[8]

As the United States and China battled over trade and their pooled effort to address North Korea’s nuclear proliferation disintegrated, the Trump administration’s Asia policy became driven by the goal of challenging what it characterized as China’s bid for regional hegemony. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Group or “the Quad,” comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, became the centerpiece of the FOIP as a security mechanism to counter China’s assertion of its widening interests in the region.

Recognizing that China’s economic power and dynamism, bolstered by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was quite literally cementing China as the region’s economic hub, the Trump administration rolled out a number of initiatives aimed at giving the United States a targeted playbook for promoting transparency and combating corruption in the region.[9] Measures such as the 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) for a “comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled” American Indo-Pacific policy and the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which sought to leverage US development finance more efficiently and promote a private investment-based rather than state-driven investment model,[10] were among Trump administration initiatives.

However, Trump’s Asia policy was consistent with his declaration at the November 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam that the United States would no longer take part in “large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible”.[11] Despite the broadened scope by the Trump administration of US strategy for the Asia Pacific strategy to an “Indo-Pacific” framework (formalized in the US Pacific Command’s name change to the US Indo-Pacific Command), beyond the Quad and bolstering strategic partnerships with key Southeast Asian states,[12] its focus was primarily on bilateral or minilateral security-oriented agreements. The Trump administration gave little attention to such trends within the region as “democratic decline” in Southeast Asia, despite their implications for US influence.[13]

Building back better?

As two former ambassadors to the United States from Singapore commented soon after the Biden election, after the vicissitudes of Trump administration interactions, the predictability, stability and professionalism of the Biden administration have been welcomed across the region. Regional leaders have also responded positively to expressions of support from the administration for multilateralism. But, as they observed, Asia today is very different from the one Biden knew during his tenure as vice president. Asian countries have “developed a greater sense of agency and belief they can shape their own future”.[14]

However, there is no assurance that this new agency will translate into more robust multilateral institutions in the region. Regional powers are proliferating their own regional initiatives to hedge against the decline of the liberal international order, sometimes competitively, in a process redolent of “contested multilateralism”.[15] Within Northeast Asia, regional cooperation remains elusive. China, Japan and South Korea all joined the Regional Cooperation and Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed by fifteen countries in late 2020. Yet, 16 rounds of talks on a proposed trilateral Free Trade Agreement among these Northeast Asian economies have proved inconclusive. In addition, although the notion of reviving the Six Party Talks as a regular regional security dialogue persists in some circles, the intensifying tensions among powers in the region make this dream a distant one.[16] Great power competition and attendant hedging behavior by individual states are making regional coordination in ASEAN all the more challenging. For example, some research suggests that external actors’ infrastructure schemes for the region are undermining ASEAN’s efforts to assert a coherent vision for regional connectivity.[17]

The Biden administration is energetically pursuing new dialogues and multilateral diplomacy in an array of areas aimed at refurbishing the US image in the region. The goal is to restore confidence that the United States is the region’s most reliable and important provider of public goods, from stability to development. The Biden administration’s refinements on its predecessor’s FOIP and Quad concepts include efforts to broaden Quad activities beyond a hard security focus. Among these efforts are working groups on climate change, technology standards, and joint development of emerging technologies, securing rare earths, as well as an expert group for regional vaccine distribution.[18] In Northeast Asia, the administration seeks trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea on a range of security issues, with denuclearization of the Korean peninsula the most prominent. In Southeast Asia there are indications that the Biden administration will promote minilateral initiatives involving ASEAN partners along the lines of the Lower Mekong Initiative and preserve a version of its predecessor’s Mekong-US Partnership to strengthen engagement on challenges within the subregion, in part in response to China’s Lancang- Mekong Cooperation forum. Although deepening Quad-ASEAN cooperation has been included as a goal of the administration’s regional diplomacy, its achievement is complicated by the Quad’s emphasis on shared values and focus on those issues that present potential counters to China’s regional assertiveness. The Biden administration has also stepped-up engagement with Pacific Islands nations around the issue of climate change. The twelve Pacific Islands, which have acted as a bloc on the issue through the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), have become so divided over China’s growing influence that the PIF’s future is in question. Of the Pacific Islands, the Biden administration’s April 2021 climate summit notably included only the Marshall Islands – the only Pacific Island nation that is not a PIF member.

The Biden administration has also begun to refine its approach to coordination with non-Asian security partners in its FOIP strategy, adding an additional dimension to its multilateral approach to the region. Discussions among members of the Quad yielded a statement of intent to deepen cooperation with Europe. In 2019 the European Union (EU) launched an action on security cooperation in and with Asia, focused on maritime security, counterterrorism, crisis management and cybersecurity, involving cooperation with five pilot countries – two of these, India and Japan, are Quad members.[19] North American Treaty Organization (NATO) allies France, Germany and the Netherlands have their own Indo-Pacific strategies, which have begun to bring them into new dialogues with regional players.[20] These dialogues may in turn engage the US in forging common approaches around shared interests in Asia. President Joseph Biden made clear at the Virtual Munich Security Conference in February 2021 that improving policy coordination with Europe and Asian partners in the Indo-Pacific is a goal of his administration.[21]

Concluding thoughts – tearing down while “building back”?

Biden administration officials have written that they seek to avoid a zero-sum contest between China and the United States in Asia. The administration has also underscored that, unlike its predecessor, it is committed to supporting existing regional multilateral institutions, including a central role for ASEAN.[22] However, despite this stated aim and efforts to pivot away from the Trump administration’s open confrontation with China, the thrust of US policy toward China remains strategic competition. Indications are that the administration will pursue coalitions of the like-minded in the region in activities that offer alternatives to those initiated by China. Doing so may provide unique and immediate benefits to US partners in the region. However, such coalitions create alternatives or off- ramps to the more cumbersome collective action of the larger and more diverse regional organizations whose path to promoting regionalism has been hard- won. Today’s US tactics thus carry risks for both the region and US strategy as less capable regional organizations reduce the region’s capacity for collective action, leaving it more vulnerable to exploitation by a regional hegemon.


[1] Biden, J.R., The White House (2021) Interim National Security Guidance, March, available online

[2] The Economist Intelligence Unit (2021) “Joe Biden’s Asia policy Takes Shape”, 24 February, available online

[3] Campbell, K.M. and Sullivan, J. (2019) “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China”, Foreign Affairs, 98(5): 96-100.

[4] Seah, S. et al. (2021) The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 10 February, available online

[5] Kuik, C.C. (2021) “The Twin Chessboards of US-China Rivalry: Impact on the Geostrategic Supply and Demand in Post-Pandemic Asia”, Asian Perspective, (2021):157-176.

[6] Ford, L. (2020) “The Trump Administration and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’”, Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Papers, May 2020, available online

[7] BBC News (2011) “Barack Obama Says Asia-Pacific is ‘Top US Priority’”, 17 November, available online

[8] UNESCO Policy Monitoring Platform (2020) “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)”, available online

[9] Ford, L. (2020) “The Trump Administration and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’”

[10] Akhtar, S.I. and Lawson, M.L. (2019) “Build Act: Frequently Asked Questions about the New US International Development Finance Corporation”, Congressional Research Service Reports, 15 January, available online

[11] U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Vietnam (2017) “Remarks by President Trump at APEC CEO Summit”,

The White House Office of the Press, 10 November, available online

[12] Saha, P. (2020) “From Pivot to Asia to Trump’s ARIA: What Drives the US’ Current Asia Policy”, Observer Research Foundation Occasional Paper no. 236 , February, available online

[13] Kurlantzick, J. (2017) “Southeast Asia’s Democratic Decline in the America First Era”, Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief , 27 October, available online

[14] Fung, M. (2020) “Biden must listen to Asia, avoid dividing region: Singapore’s former US ambassadors”, The Straits Times, 26 November, available online

[15] Morse, J.C. and Keohane, R.O. (2014) “Contested Multilateralism”, The Review of International Organizations, 9(4): 385-412.

[16] Ahn, S. (2021) “Washington Could Revive Four-party, Six-Party Talked with NK under Blinken”, The Korea Herald, 27 January, available online

[17] Mueller, L.M. (2020) “Challenges to ASEAN centrality and hedging in connectivity governance—regional and national pressure points”, The Pacific Review, online first, 18 May, 1-31.

[18] Deccan Herald (2021) “US President Joe Biden says free, open Indo-Pacific essential as he meets with India, Japan and Australia”, 12 March, available online

[19] D’Ambrogio, E. (2021) “The Quad: An Emerging Multilateral Security Framework of Democracies in the Indo-Pacific Region”, European Parliamentary Research Service Briefing, PE 690.513, March 2021, available online

[20] See for example, Ministère de L’Europe et Des Affaires Etrangères (2021) “Indo-Pacific—Trilateral dialogue between France, India and Australia—First Focal Points Meeting”, 24 February, available online

[21] The White House (2021) “Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference”, 19 February, available online

[22] Kato, M. and Moriyasu, K. (2021) “Quad vows to Work with ASEAN and Europe in first Biden-era Meeting”, NikkeiAsia, 21 February, available online

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