Recalibrating America’s role in the region

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

The United States elections have always had a strong bearing on the rest of the world, because the US’ major power status has an inordinate impact and influence on global affairs. The US has a major stake in international and multilateral organizations that serve as a platform for tackling global security and existential threats. Specifically, the US remains an important actor for the Indo-Pacific region, given its military capability, strategic alliances and defense networks, and humanitarian assistance. Most notably, its presence in the region has become a “counterbalancing” force to China’s emergence.

According to the 2020 Asia Power Index of the Lowy Institute, the COVID-19 outbreak has further accelerated the changing regional power dynamics as much as it has exposed the deep interdependencies of states. Although the US holds a relative advantage over China, its reputation in Asia has deteriorated under Donald Trump, said the report. With a new administration under Joe Biden, what’s next for the Indo-Pacific region?

During Trump’s term, the US launched several foreign policy moves that translated to both risks and opportunities for the region. The US hardened its stance against China, from raising the alarm on technological warfare and waging stronger language against China’s economic and military coercion to directly engaging with Taiwan. These developments simultaneously allowed other states in the region to redefine their bilateral relations with China, considering their own national security and interests, and to seek stronger ties with like-minded states. However, it also placed the region in the middle of a strategic competition, where countries are forced to choose between a traditional ally and a developmental partner.

Biden has been handed a disrupted global order filled with uncertainties. Though his stated foreign policy is far from perfect, a key aspect of it is reinvigorating democracy. He emphasizes that reinvigoration needs to happen at the national level and then outward to regain the global community’s trust and confidence in the US. This approach is timely, as the rules-based order is being challenged by state and non-state actors circumventing the rule of law and redefining the established norms and commitments that contribute to global stability. However, on the China challenge, Biden must be mindful of the lessons from the Obama and Trump administrations. The US cannot engage with an authoritarian regime and expect it to adhere to democratic values fully. But neither can the US adopt a hardline force projection without the consequences of further destabilization.

The US policy approach must shift away from being a unipolar power dominant over most domains, and toward recalibrating its strategy to consider the region’s multipolar nature. There is no going back to the old status quo where the US was at the “head of the table.” There is no longer any room for a Cold War or a prolonged strategic competition between two global powers.

This multipolarity is a product of the varying levels of development of states in the economic, political, and social sense. It consists of middle powers whose roles and interests are just as substantial to the region. With the geographic area that they share, they also share common threats and challenges that hinder their national development. China’s aggressive expansionism has brought out complex issues that can only be addressed through engagement and consultation among directly affected states. In the South China Sea, these are the Southeast Asian maritime nations sharing waters. In the emerging threats seen in space and technology, there is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus, which includes key regional players such as Japan, Australia, and India.

The current global disorder, with the rise of evolving security threats in both traditional and non-traditional spaces, demands that the US utilize effective minilateral collaborations with its strategic partners and allies in the region.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Erin Schaff/The New York Times.

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