US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin on July 26. Photo: Reuters
Danil Bochkov
Danil Bochkov

US-China relations: is Beijing ready to compete with Washington’s new pivot to Asia?

  • Biden’s approach to the Indo-Pacific appears less conciliatory towards China than the initial ‘pivot’, instead focusing on reducing tensions with Russia
  • China seems to be raising the ante, maintaining close diplomatic and military ties with Russia while ramping up defence spending in preparation for potential conflict
When then-US president Barack Obama launched his “ pivot to Asia” in 2011, little did he know it would see its de facto rekindling 10 years later under his Democratic successor Joe Biden.
America’s turn towards Asia under Obama was positive at first, but in the long run it saw ups and downs as Donald Trump rolled back several major initiatives. Biden has effectively reprioritised the region in the US foreign policy agenda, with a de facto “pivot to Asia 2.0”.
The Biden administration has emphasised the Indo-Pacific in its long-term policy planning. In June, the Pentagon’s China task force presented its recommendations, focusing on long-term rivalry with China in the Indo-Pacific.
Economically, the United States is deliberating on a digital trade agreement encompassing Indo-Pacific economies. This is believed to be a precursor to the US joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump abandoned.
Washington’s shift was exemplified by the appointment of Kurt Campbell as the White House’s Indo-Pacific policy director, a newly established post within the administration which signifies the region’s priority.


US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’

US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’
There has been a steady clamour in the past year over various military initiatives aimed at raising the US’ influence in Asia, the latest being a permanent naval task force aimed at countering China in the Pacific. Other initiatives include redirecting resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, patching frayed alliance networks, spending billions to upgrade military hardware and streamlining tactical and operational approaches.
Biden has also reduced the US overemphasis on the Middle East, withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, something Obama and Trump failed to accomplish.
Foreseeing “ extreme competition” with China, Biden seems focused on preventing the US having to fight on two fronts. He has struck a more conciliatory tone with Russia while remaining tough on China. The talks between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, in June, were more productive and calmer than those between Chinese and American representatives in Alaska and Tianjin.
In a sign of distinctly thawing ties with Moscow, Biden has extended the New START nuclear pact, waived sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and called for pursuing a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia. Washington and Moscow have reached a rare agreement on aid to Syria and held a dialogue on strategic stability.


China, Russia foreign ministers meet as countries stand ‘back to back’ amid rise in US tensions

China, Russia foreign ministers meet as countries stand ‘back to back’ amid rise in US tensions

While the US wants to concentrate on countering Beijing and see Russia cede to China its role as America’s arch-rival, Washington could still face impediments refocusing on Asia.

Even so, the US has moved to restore its alliances by dispatching high-ranking officials to Asia on a regular basis. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin toured Asia in March, followed by US climate envoy John Kerry’s trip in April. Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have recently returned from tours of East Asia.
Vice-President Kamala Harris is heading to Singapore and Vietnam this month, while Blinken is holding talks with ministers from Southeast Asian countries. Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in April and held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in the following month.
While Seoul still tries to strike a balance between the world’s two superpowers, Tokyo seems clearly in the US camp, a stance marked by its official linking of Taiwan’s security with its own in a recently published defence white paper.


Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

The US has been promoting the Quad security grouping for several years, but Washington’s alliance efforts go beyond regional boundaries.

It has held galvanising exchanges with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at diplomatic and military levels, as shown by the Philippines’ decision to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement and US-Indonesia joint military drills.
Washington has also welcomed greater participation from its European allies as Britain, Germany and France have increased their presence in Asia. Asean and the Quad are likely to be key points in the latest US pivot. It will differ from Obama’s approach, which was more cooperative and sought compromise with China.
Seeing the prospect of being regionally besieged, China has accused the US of “ ganging up” with its allies to contain Beijing while simultaneously pursuing its own agenda with Asean and maintaining close diplomatic and military ties with Russia.
Beijing has raised the ante by abandoning its cooperative approach, taking cooperation on climate change off the table during the Tianjin summit unless Washington halted its anti-China behaviour.
Meanwhile, China appears to be preparing for a flare-up in tensions. It is prioritising “ preparations for military struggle”, and President Xi Jinping has told China’s military to “ be prepared to respond” in unstable times.
Even with all the harsh words, the US and China appear to understand that tensions boiling over into military conflict would have grave implications for the whole world. Biden is considering establishing a hotline with China akin to the “ red phone” between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Chances of confrontation seem to be growing as China struggles to guarantee the realisation of its centennial goals and become the dominant world power, which would intrinsically challenge US global leadership.

Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council