The amphibious assault ship USS America steams with Royal Australian Navy landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra, amphibious transport dock USS New Orleans, Japan Maritime Self Defence Force destroyer JS Makinami and Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat during maritime manoeuvres in the US-led Large Scale Global Exercise 21.Photo: Royal Australian Navy
Danil Bochkov
Danil Bochkov

The US is not retreating from global leadership – it’s refocusing on Asia

  • After decades of fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan, America is concentrating on winning over Asia while simultaneously focusing on domestic issues
  • As US-China rivalry in Asia takes shape, the military is ceding more space to diplomacy – for now
America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted a drop in President Joe Biden’s approval rating and energised the debate over the decline in US global leadership.
Russia and China are among the main proponents of the argument that the swift US pull-out should be seen as a bellwether by America’s allies such as Ukraine and Taiwan – a sign that they may similarly be abandoned. Viewed internationally as a mess, the clumsy US departure might, however, be politically considered more of a refocusing than a retreat.
Indeed, Washington is simultaneously refocusing on domestic and regional issues. The former has so many schisms along political, cultural and ideological lines that former president George W. Bush, in recalling the September 11 attacks, said: “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own.”
Biden’s presidency has been marked by the shifting of priorities from foreign policy to the domestic issues best epitomised by his flagship Build Back Better Agenda – which is struggling to win bipartisan support.
The widening political divide in the US has translated into its recent foreign policy swings. Biden has just broken six months of phone silence to call Chinese President Xi Jinping in what Beijing described as “ a very candid exchange”.
It was only the second call between the two leaders since Biden entered the Oval Office. Though it can be regarded as a step forward in bilateral relations – following fruitless discussions between Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, Wendy Sherman and Xie Feng, and Wang Yi and John Kerry – the content of the conversation highlighted the low ebb in US-China ties.
Although Biden has sought to stabilise relations with China, the US is reportedly considering Taiwan’s proposal to rename the Taipei representative office in Washington the Taiwan Representative Office. Beijing has protested against this and warned the US not to challenge the one-China principle.
Meanwhile, the US has backed Lithuania’s decision to call the Taipei mission there the Taiwanese Representative Office.
And, despite China’s conciliatory attempts to open up its market to American companies, the US is considering a new investigation into Beijing’s trade policies, a move that could reignite the Trump-era trade war.
Moreover, the US has revived its Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, and plans to host in Pittsburgh on September 29 the first meeting of the Trade and Tech Council, aimed at countering China’s rise in advanced technology.


British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth visits Japan amid China worry

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth visits Japan amid China worry
Regionally, the US has been building clout in the Asia-Pacific by coalescing allies and promoting new formats such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”.
Washington has endeared itself to Japan and South Korea, which have embraced its anti-China initiatives. Signs of a closer tilt from Japan include a trilateral meeting with Taiwan and the US in July, followed by the incorporation of Taiwan in Japan’s defence white paper, amid several pro-Taiwan statements by Japanese politicians.
Most recently, ruling parties in Japan and Taiwan met to express grave concerns over Beijing’s military activities in the region. This came after Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said Japan would have to defend Taiwan with the US in case of an attack.
As Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares to travel to Washington for the first in-person summit of Quad leaders on September 24, China is warning the security forum against a “zero-sum mentality” and the targeting of any third party.


Biden and Suga vow to take on ‘challenges from China’, counter Beijing’s ‘intimidation’

Biden and Suga vow to take on ‘challenges from China’, counter Beijing’s ‘intimidation’

The Quad grouping has also attracted interest from the EU, according to a draft Indo-Pacific strategy document revealed by Nikkei Asia. The EU document outlines the bloc’s aspirations towards working on common interests with the Quad, new digital partnerships with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, and closer trade and investment ties with Taiwan.

At the Pittsburgh summit, the EU reportedly plans to agree with the US on a framework to screen out potentially hostile foreign investments, amid a Beijing buying spree targeting technology firms.

Taiwan and other allies in East Asia are not the only focal points for a US refocusing on Asia after decades of intensive fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Vietnam seems to be gaining attention too, with US Vice-President Kamala Harris making a stop during a recent visit to Southeast Asia, where she identified China as a key regional threat that “continues to coerce, to intimidate”. Recently, Japan and Vietnam signed a deal to sell Japanese-produced defence equipment and technology to Hanoi.


What has Kamala Harris achieved during her week-long trip to Southeast Asia?

What has Kamala Harris achieved during her week-long trip to Southeast Asia?

Last month, the US Navy carried out its largest exercise in decades, across both strategic theatres of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The expert consensus is that the geographical coverage is aimed at sending a signal to Russia and China that Washington is capable of handling both of its strategic threats simultaneously.

The Large Scale Exercise 2021 was followed by the US-led Quad Malabar naval manoeuvres, which China Daily scoffed at, describing it as the “Quad’s costly show of self-comfort”.
Beijing is counterbalancing America’s intensified attempts to command the Asia-Pacific with its own initiatives. This month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi began his second tour to Southeast Asia in less than a year to boost regional ties following US overtures. He called on Vietnam to resist interference in local affairs from regional outsiders, and urged Vietnam not to “ magnify conflicts” in the South China Sea.
China has also courted Singapore, which emphasised that it welcomed Beijing’s local contributions, and will cooperate “to build a more harmonious and peaceful world”.
As the China-US rivalry in Asia takes shape, the military is ceding more space to diplomacy, for now. But the balance could be shattered if new provocations or intrusions follow from either side.

Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council