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From Australia to ZTE, the Asia-Pacific is a puzzle with few right answers and lots of wrong ones.   © Illustration by Eric Chow
The Big Story

Biden's big Asia challenge: An A to Z survival guide

US has its work cut out in the world's biggest continent

WAJAHAT KHAN, Nikkei staff writer | East Asia

NEW YORK -- With China ascendant, tensions in the Taiwan Strait escalating, the pandemic surging in India and Japan, Myanmar spiraling and the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, the new U.S. administration of Joe Biden has declared the Indo-Pacific as the most important region on its radar. But what are the policy challenges it faces on the world's largest continent?

Read on for Nikkei Asia's A to Z index of what America's new president faces in Asia.

Australia: Are Canberra and Beijing breaking up? One of the biggest recent geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific is the widening schism between the Middle Kingdom and Down Under. After more than a decade of trade dependency on Beijing -- sending a third of its exports to that country alone -- Australia seems to have firmly embraced its alliance with the U.S. as a pillar of its foreign policy. The tensions began gradually, first in 2018 with Canberra banning Chinese telecom companies (read ZTE & Huawei below), and escalated in 2020 when it suggested that investigators be sent to Wuhan to probe COVID-19's origin. China responded with aggressive tariffs, and has now slammed an indefinite suspension of a key economic dialogue with Australia. That follows Canberra's own punitive measures: using a recently passed law to cancel Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure deals with China on the basis of national security.

Balochistan: Bordering Iran and Afghanistan, this insurgency-ridden yet geostrategically important province in southwestern Pakistan is ground zero of China's Belt and Road Initiative, housing BRI's $65 billion flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But there's more to barren, mountainous Balochistan. According to the Department of Defense, Beijing is considering adding a naval presence at and around the under-construction port of Gwadar, potentially allowing it to dock People's Liberation Army naval ships at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Pakistanis and other BRI partners have pivoted to China because of scarce alternative funding options, but Islamabad is still making friendly noises. Will the Biden administration be able to counter BRI with its own offerings or let China chip away for more influence in the region?

A container is loaded onto the Cosco Wellington, the first container ship to depart from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor port in Gwadar, Pakistan following inauguration in November 2016.   © Reuters

China: Trump's trade war has spilled over into great power competition, featuring a tech and tariff battle, a supply chain race, a debate over human rights, and an increased threat of military confrontation. But China is not just America's greatest foreign policy challenge. It is "our most serious competitor," according to U.S. President Joe Biden -- and expected to overtake the U.S. to become the world's biggest economy by 2028, according to the U.K.-based Center for Economics and Business Research. As vice president, Biden supported Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia," but Team Biden is trying a new approach. By shoring up America's decades-old alliances (like those with Tokyo) and signing on newer partners (like New Delhi) while regrouping with European allies slighted during the Donald Trump era (like Germany), the Biden Administration is aiming to form a broader front to stand up to Beijing.

Dynasties & Dictators: Myanmar's brutal junta vs. Aung San Suu Kyi's ethnically divided democrats. India's liberal but disorganized Gandhis vs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's violent yet efficient Hindutva. The list of Asia's conflicting and complicated power dyads -- and roster of popular strongmen like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, pro-establishment frontmen like Islamabad's Prime Minister Imran Khan and unpopular royals like Bangkok's King Maha Vajiralongkorn (read Rama X below) -- pose a larger question for Biden: Will his Asia policy be driven by the Clinton-Obama school of diplomacy, which has low tolerance for undemocratic foreign powers, or will his be a more nuanced position that can work with the authoritarianism common to the region? At a time when China seeks to either replace or has already dethroned the U.S. as the largest investor, market and/or partner in many Indo-Pacific economies, Biden's choices will matter more than ever.

East China Sea: When Japan announced the purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands (which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu) in 2012, China responded with almost everything it had, including joint combat exercises. Fast forward to 2021, and the conflict has escalated beyond drills: January saw the passage of China's new Coast Guard law (which allows the force to shoot at foreign vessels), and in April, its aircraft carrier came sailing through Japan's Miyako Strait. As the U.S. underscores its defense pact with an increasingly alarmed Tokyo, the ECS heats up as a regional point of contention.

The Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship USS Chief transits the East China Sea in front of Japan's Mt. Iodake.   © James Greeves/U.S. Navy

First Fleet: Trump-era plans to reinstate the deactivated 1st Fleet to give the U.S. Navy more expeditionary presence in the Indian Ocean are likely to get Biden's support. Singapore's Changi and Australia's Perth have been mooted as possible bases for the fleet, which was restructured out of existence in 1973, but security concerns are different today. China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is growing. According to the Pentagon, it overtook the U.S. Navy as the world's largest in 2020, even commissioning its own indigenously produced aircraft carrier. The Defense Department warns that the "PRC is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure." So, from Myanmar to Pakistan, from Thailand to Sri Lanka, China has naval ambitions. But will the Biden White House, which wants to fight COVID-19 before it fights the PLAN, opt for further military posturing?

Guam: The concentration of American military on this tiny U.S.-administered territory in the middle of the Pacific is presenting a vulnerable target. That's why the Department of Defense is looking to change things, ending permanent strategic bomber presence on the island in 2020 to keep up with the National Defense Strategy's recommendation for U.S. forces to "be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable." Whether forces are redeployed or not (Marines are expected to be transferred here from Japan, but there is opposition from environmentalists), expect Guam to remain an essential part of the U.S. military's strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

Hong Kong: The timing couldn't have been more ironic. On Jan. 6, as marchers intending to storm the U.S. Capitol were amassing in Washington, a thousand officers of the Hong Kong police started the single largest wave of arrests since the former British colony's activists began their rights movement in 2019. By the end of the day, the message from Beijing to the not-yet-installed Biden administration was clear: Do not interfere. Despite serial admonition from the State Department and critique from Secretary Antony Blinken via Twitter, its position has not budged. Meanwhile, Washington is now being called out openly by Beijing for putting its own house in order first, leaving it with little moral traction to pursue the cause of Hong Kong.

Immunization: Vaccine diplomacy is fast transforming Asia, where many countries which successfully controlled the virus last year have no clear path to immunization. As the U.S. vaccine campaign reaches saturation levels, putting it in a position to export surplus shots, and as China's vaccines gain World Health Organization clearance, the competition for influence is intensifying (Russia has already jumped into the race, making it a three-way). There are expectations, too. America's delayed response in sending aid and vaccines to India resulted in an immediate backlash from the Quad partner, compounded by accusations of hoarding. But, as the National Endowment for Democracy warns, authoritarian states like China and Russia like to fight dirty, and there is ample evidence of how disinformation campaigns against Western vaccines, targeting political elites of recipient countries for early access and even securing political favors.

Jakarta: Indonesia is critical for Biden's cause of multilateralism: the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; the most populous Muslim nation in the world; overseer of critical maritime passages; and increasingly uncomfortable with China's claims in the South China Sea. But there's a problem: The sentiment in Jakarta, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, shows little confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner. A 2020-21 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute poll of ASEAN bloc nations ranking the most influential powers in Southeast Asia placed the U.S. at 7.4% compared to China at 76.3%, proving that Beijing's robust infrastructure and vaccine diplomacy regime dominates the country and the region, outmatching the U.S. by billions of dollars.

Kabul: Exit is imminent, but at what cost? State-building has regressed, the Taliban are stronger than ever, the Pakistanis are firmly in China's camp, and the Iranians have their own negotiations with the militants. Moreover, violence is higher than last year, and the chances of Afghanistan descending into chaos remain likely if the withdrawal is not properly executed. But even after the last U.S. soldier leaves on Sept. 11, Biden will have to fill a tall order: counting on a network of resilience with awkward partners, like Beijing and New Delhi, or Islamabad and Moscow, to keep Kabul stable.

Laos: Even as it treads the thin red line between old ally Vietnam and new benefactor China, the tiny mountainous country is transforming into Beijing's satellite state. Laos presents a classic tale of what happens when Washington loses interest in a country. Since Biden -- Jill, not Joe -- became the first White House representative to visit the country in 2015, Laos' debt to China has doubled. As Beijing fires up the BRI, the country is set to become, according to China's state-run Xinhua, "a land bridge" that will connect China to the rest of the region.

Myanmar: Since the military staged the Feb. 1 coup, almost 800 people, including dozens of children, have been killed in brutally quelled protests. According to observers, hundreds of others -- mostly young men -- have disappeared, and thousands have been forced to flee their homes. But despite state-controlled broadcasting, internet blockages and social media shutdowns, a civil disobedience movement has remained resourceful and resilient. The parallel National Unity Government recently announced the formation of a people's defense force based on a rainbow of long-standing insurgent armies. As the military began air assaults against the insurgents, one group recently claimed to have shot down a government helicopter. Meanwhile, refugees are pushing up against the Thai border following the airstrikes. The White House must weigh its options as the possibility of a failed state looms large.

North Korea: On its 101st day in office, the U.S. administration announced that it had concluded its North Korea policy review. Details were scant, but the shift in wording used by U.S. officials gave some clues to its internal discussions. Instead of calling for the "denuclearization of North Korea," which the State Department had used for years, officials are now calling for the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The nuanced change is a nod to South Korea, which has insisted on the new language as it reduces finger-pointing toward the North. Crucially, the adjustment suggests that the Biden administration is being true to its word in listening to allies and partners about problem-solving in Pyongyang.

Orchard Road, Singapore: In this finance-savvy city-state which punches above its political weight, this address is where high street meets main street, and where China could potentially meet the U.S. The tiny island's nonpartisan diplomacy -- its leader has openly said he does not want to choose between Washington or Beijing -- is a microcosm of Asia's decoupling dilemma. The U.S. is a defense partner and the biggest investor, but China is its largest export market. But with America knocking on its door for naval basing rights (read First Fleet, above), either leader Lee Hsien Loong or his successor may be forced to pick a side.

Ports: Chinese strategists have long worried about America's hold over maritime chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca. Thus, the theory goes, China's Belt and Road Initiative is built on circumventing a potential denial of access through a network of ports that either give it overland routes, maritime presence, or even pipelines to energy and trade networks. The theory appears to hold true so far, from Kuantan in Malaysia to Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, to Hambantota in Sri Lanka, to Gwadar in Pakistan. But it is not just the business of commercial ports that China is getting into. Besides its military base in Djibouti, it has also got a side business of birthing new cities around its port projects: business parks, industrial zones, glitzy high-rises, even airports. Biden must take note: The World Bank has warned about the rising debt and instability that comes with some of these projects, which could create greater dependency on China.

Quad: Although not an alliance, the Quad seems to behave like one. But does the partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. have the muscle to confront China militarily? For that, the U.S. needs the Quad to include India, the world's second largest military. For over two decades, the joint narrative for the India-U.S. relationship has remained compelling: The world's oldest democracy must stand united with the world's largest one. Thanks to a robust defense partnership bolstered by the threat of China, the U.S. managed to convince traditionally nonaligned India to sign up. But three issues divide Washington and New Delhi. Firstly, India's decades-old habit of strategic autonomy (translated, "my policy my way, your policy my way"), which disqualifies it as dependable alliance material. Next, its decades-old addiction to Russian military hardware, which, short of a waiver, could trigger sanctions by the U.S. Thirdly, its increasingly deteriorating human rights record against minorities, dissidents and the press under the fervently Hindu-nationalist and openly anti-Muslim Modi regime.

Rama X: The kingdom's archaic lese-majeste law has been used effectively to stifle dissent, and protests have dwindled since last summer's peak. The protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government, but, more radically, they broke an ancient taboo and openly called for reform of the monarchy under a revised constitution. The demands are a direct challenge to the entrenched interdependence between the military and monarchy -- the former has traditionally justified its actions by claiming it is protecting the latter. However, the military is not going anywhere. Thailand remains the United States' oldest treaty partner in Asia: an ally since 1954, which buys billions worth of U.S. weaponry. As for King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also referred to as Rama X, who remains at the center of the current unrest, his proximity by decree and tradition to the military reduces the possibility that Washington will directly confront him.

South Korea: Before the March visit by Secretaries Blinken and Lloyd Austin, the Moon administration had openly distanced itself from Washington's "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept, wary of risking Beijing's ire. But there is another, older issue brewing: Japan. While Biden needs America's two most important allies in East Asia to be in lockstep, Seoul and Tokyo cannot seem to stop kicking each other under the table, unable to form trust due to historic issues. With a year left in his term, Moon is also staring at a legacy problem, which will stir instability in the trilateral arrangement if he pushes for pan-peninsula denuclearization.

Taiwan: Taipei's status remains the primary source of possible military confrontation between the U.S. and China. While there was speculation that Biden might roll back Trump's tough-on-China policy, the first few days of the Biden presidency, starting with his inauguration to which he invited Taiwan's representative, established that the new administration was going to keep the pro-Taiwan momentum going. However, if Taipei moves toward independence, Biden himself may be the weakest link. He has shown no signs that he is ready to change the longstanding U.S. stance of only recognizing Beijing according to the One China policy.

Uyghurs: Biden's election campaign took a very clear stance on the "unspeakable oppression" of the Uyghurs of western China's Xinjiang. Upon his confirmation, Secretary Blinken retained Trump's categorization of Beijing's treatment of the Muslim minority as genocide. But will the Uyghurs become just another item on a lengthening laundry list of anti-Beijing accusations, or will the State Department actually come up with more tangible, effective -- and perhaps punitive -- ways to deal with the issue?

Vietnam: That Hanoi is taking full advantage of the U.S.-China trade war (Apple is among the many companies which have shifted production there) is not lost upon either Washington or Beijing. However, Hanoi needs more than one great power to offset the other. Despite disagreement over the Spratly Islands, Vietnam cannot afford to push China away. Biden will have to court hard, setting aside classic Democrat discomforts about human rights for ties with the communist state. If he wants ASEAN to align with the U.S., he will need to befriend one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic economies.

Wagah: Biden's probably never heard of this small city in eastern Pakistan, yet understanding its significance just might bring peace to the world's most dangerous nuclear flashpoint. For decades, a half-hour before sunset, Indian and Pakistani soldiers, hand-picked giants at a minimum of 6 feet 4 inches and 200 pounds, have confronted each other in full battle regalia for a changing of the guard ceremony in this border town. Clicking heels, mustache twirls and goose steps are all perfectly synchronized in a choreographed daily show of machismo designed to maintain order at the only official border crossing between the two archrivals. Born together from the subcontinent's partition by the British, India and Pakistan are no longer equals, except in their ability to annihilate each other with an expanding nuclear arsenal. Biden must take stock: The daily peacocking at Wagah is a sign of the possibilities between India and Pakistan -- that they can, when they so wish, actually make things work perfectly well.

Pakistani Rangers (wearing black) and Indian Border Security Force personnel (wearing brown) face off with a high-kicking ceremonial march at the Pakistan India border post in Wagah.   © AFP/Jiji

Xi Jinping: China does not have a constitution, but from school syllabuses to military manuals, "Xi Jinping Thought'' is already a part of the national curriculum. Till he secures a third and probably indefinite term at the 20th National Party Congress in 2022, Xi will not want to look weak. But his long game is unlike Biden's: Xi is not trying to heal a nation or groom a vice president. Rather, he is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, with himself firmly in the center of the Middle Kingdom. Thus, themes like "secure and controllable" (e.g. in chip supply chain resiliency) and "dual circulation" (in developing domestic markets) will continue, as will zero-tolerance for dissent -- just ask recently imprisoned Hong Kong newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai. But there's always the X-factor -- Biden and Xi have known each other for more than a decade, a historic first for the top officeholders in Washington and Beijing, which could, potentially, hold out the possibility of some warmth.

Yoshihide Suga: The departure of Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest serving prime minister and architect of a crucial international doctrine -- the "free and open Indo-Pacific" -- has left a gap not just in Tokyo but also in Washington. Here is the truth his successor Suga faces: Japan has one ally in the world, and that is the U.S. It has no military, just the constitutionally nonaggressive Self-Defense Forces. Thus, Japan's security is almost totally dependent on a treaty with America, based on the assumption that the U.S. will always defend Japan. But while the political mood in Tokyo is firmly pro-Washington, business elites want to be on better terms with Beijing, and are not buying into the decoupling narrative. After his recent visit to the White House, where he openly condemned Beijing's expansionism, Suga -- whose poll numbers are suffering for bungling the vaccination program and mismanaging the Olympics -- seems like he is willing to take Tokyo to the next level of Japan's alliance with America, with clarity about confronting China.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on May 7. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai) 

ZTE [& Huawei Technologies]: The blandly named Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment company is not just a maker of cheap cellphones. Along with Huawei, it's one of two Chinese companies that sells equipment for cellular networks including 5G. That, according to trade skeptics in Washington, makes them essential components of Beijing's foreign policy apparatus. The anti-Beijing narrative goes that China's aid diplomacy programs push ZTE and Huawei networks into infrastructure packages, embedding them into the tech economies of client states, giving Beijing eyes into another country's systems. Though no hard proof against Huawei has been made public, ZTE has owned up to and been fined for its own sanctions breaches during the Trump era, when both companies were designated national security threats. Under Biden, the screws continue to be tightened, sparking a major push for self-sufficiency by China's semiconductor industry. If cybersecurity continues to feature in the U.S. versus China rivalry, how far will it go?

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