It wasn’t so long ago that some analysts were accusing US President Joe Biden of being “confused” when it came to Asia, that he was risking losing parts of the continent to China, that he had been a “disappointment”, and that his “troubled South-East Asia policy needed a reboot”. Over the past couple of months, however, his team has been paying the region very close attention.
In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement reaffirming the preceding Trump administration’s rejection of nearly all of China’s wide maritime claims in the South China Sea, and also warned that any armed attack on the Philippines’ vessels, aircraft or personnel in the area “would invoke US mutual defence commitments”. Later that month, Mr Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, visited China, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, having gone to Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia only a few weeks earlier.
She was followed by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, who went to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. And most recently Vice President Kamala Harris was in Vietnam and Singapore, where she declared that “our partnerships in South-East Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States… this region is critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity".
Now Mr Biden has announced his picks for two ambassadorships – Beijing and Tokyo – and both are men with whom he has worked closely. For the former, Nicholas Burns was an official adviser to the president during his election campaign and is a foreign policy veteran who was number three at the State Department before retiring. For the latter, Rahm Emanuel is a long-time Democratic politician who was White House chief of staff when Mr Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president.
It is a sign of Mr Biden’s seriousness that neither of these plum jobs have gone to donors or supporters he owes, but people who know his mind and can be trusted to be “work horses” not “show horses”, as former National Security Council director Evan Medeiros put it, in refence to Mr Burns's appointment. Short of turning up in the region himself – which no doubt he will at some point – it’s hard to see how much more Mr Biden could have been expected to do only seven months into his presidency.
And recently, of course, other, tragic events have been on his mind. The scenes of chaos and death as the US and Nato withdrew from Afghanistan have led to speculation that America’s reliability has been fatally undermined around the world. Despite the heated commentary, however, this is not the case in the Asia-Pacific. For, while the US had only a limited history in Afghanistan, and no original intention to remain in the long term, America’s ties in East and South-East Asia go back a long way.
The US has been a treaty ally of South Korea since 1953, of Thailand since 1954, and of Japan and of the Philippines (which is also a former American imperial possession) since 1951. This is a very different order of relationship and cannot be compared in terms of binding commitment to US involvement – even military involvement – in other countries. It is unthinkable, or at least the US would have to have turned its back on a global role, for it to abandon its bases in Japan and South Korea, or even for the American “freedom of navigation operations” in the disputed South China Sea, which so irk Beijing, to cease.
On the contrary, US drawdown in the Middle East and Central Asia is expected to allow the administration to focus more, not less, on the Asia-Pacific. As my former colleague at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Thomas Daniel, puts it: “It is unlikely that decision makers here will be swayed by talk of American decline or defeat.” In fact, some would be impressed, Mr Daniel tells me, by Mr Biden’s “discipline and determination to follow through with the withdrawal, and refocus on more pressing matters".
Those are already being attended to in the region. During Gen Austin’s time in Manila, the Visiting Forces Agreement that governs US forces’ war drills and exercises in the Philippines was restored. Last week in Singapore, Ms Harris said the US was offering to host the 2023 Asian-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum – one of the key regional summits that former president Donald Trump regularly skipped. Mr Biden was so keen to emphasise American resolve to stand with its friends in Asia that in one television interview he mistakenly included Taiwan in a list of allies that the US would defend in the event of invasion.
The region would like the US to do more; to rejoin the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Partnership on the Trans-Pacific that had been championed by Mr Obama, for instance. But in terms of America’s presence in the region, there is a case to be made that Mr Biden is slowly but surely making good on the promise of a US “pivot to Asia” that was much bandied about but not fulfilled during the Obama administration, with the added bonus for many countries that he is talking just as tough to China as the Trump White House – which means that they don’t have to.
As for the ultimate test: would America really go to war for an ally or a friend, namely Taiwan, in the Asia-Pacific? Twenty-five years ago, the answer may have been a probable yes. Today, given the might available to a risen and more confident China and the terrible risks of escalation, one could not be certain. But that would apply to whoever was in the White House. Call out Mr Biden for whatever failings you like, but his actions in Afghanistan have not weakened American power at the other end of the continent one bit – as I am sure those with real influence in Beijing know very well, too.