Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 1 – 21st Century Technologies, Geopolitics, and the US-Japan Alliance: Recognizing Game-changing Potential 

Key Findings

Throughout the month of October 2020, with support from the US Embassy Tokyo, the Pacific Forum cohosted with the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University, the Keio University Global Research Institute, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology a series of virtual panel discussions on “Game Changing Technologies and the US-Japan Alliance.” Over 280 individuals joined the 10 sessions – 7 closed door and 3 public panels – that examined issues such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, big data, cybersecurity, drones, quantum computing, robots, and 3-D printing. A conversation of this length and breadth is difficult to summarize, but the following key findings attempt to capture this rich and variegated discussion.

General landscape

Mastery of new and emerging technologies is key to success in 21st century economic competition and global leadership. There is much talk about those technologies’ impact on “the balance of power,” but a fundamental question remains: The power to do what?

Technological prowess is vital not only to national defense and dominance, but also to provide a bulwark against interference by authoritarian governments in domestic and personal affairs.

Democracies are losing their historical influence over technology development, standard-setting, and limiting proliferation relative to the growing capacity of authoritarian competitors, but this can be corrected.

Japan has made national economic statecraft a priority but has considerable work to do to deal with the suite of issues associated with creating and effectively exploiting emerging technologies.

The ubiquity of many of these technologies and government initiatives like China’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) erase historical distinctions between military and civilian use. Traditional export controls focus on protecting military and dual-use items. The growing difficulty in distinguishing between military and civilian end-use and end-users makes export controls challenging to apply, and ineffective in practice.

Emerging technologies

Despite growing attention to emerging technologies in the US and Japan and acknowledgement of the need for coordinated action to regulate their use, disparities between the two countries in terms of knowledge about, impact of, and proficiency in these technologies inhibit coordinated action.

Uncertainties inherent in the development of “emerging technologies” make regulation of their use and control of their dissemination difficult, if not impossible. Identifying the appropriate technology to control is also problematic, and there is agreement that “casting the net” too wide will inhibit innovation.

There is an inherent tension between a desire for international collaboration to spur innovation and the perceived need to control access to technologies to preserve economic and security-related advantages, particularly to prevent their diversion by or to other countries.

While there is an instinct in the US to decouple economic exchange from perceived adversaries to prevent technology leakage, connections afford the US and its allies a window into the work of perceived adversaries and prevent surprise – both economic and strategic.

Economic incentives to get new technologies to market as quickly as possible may undermine the readiness of entrepreneurs to build in safety, security, and ethics. The declining cost of new technologies and their increasing availability to the public democratize access to dangerous tools and create a leveling effect among nations.


If data is “the new oil” – and there was little dissent about this – then the norms and regulations regarding its “ownership” and/or use will be vital to success in the 21st century economy. Coordination among governments that facilitate or inhibit sharing of such data is critical.

We are only beginning to understand how data processing outcomes can be influenced by the types of algorithms used. Ostensibly “neutral” algorithms can prejudice decision-making by incorporating subtle but important biases. Even nontechnical policy people should seek to shine light into the algorithm “black box” to understand what assumptions are being made.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated demand for better cybersecurity practices – and made plain the alarming gap in both the capacity and the will to implement those practices. At the same time, the pandemic-triggered recession has forced companies to cut their cybersecurity budgets just as they have increased spending on IT capabilities to account for a surge in remote working arrangements.

Be wary of comparisons of who is “winning” cyber or technology races. Much depends on the metrics used and assumptions about the nature of the competition. The “race” metaphor also obscures the importance of international collaboration and reduces the equation to a zero sum.

Identifying and thinking about cyberspace as a separate military domain on par with air, sea land, or space encourages clarity in relevant decision making – whether civilian, military, government, or private. On the other hand, such a distinction risks obscuring the fact that cyberspace is intrinsic to, and fully permeates, the other domains.

As governments attempt to secure national cyber networks, small- and medium-size businesses continue to struggle to protect themselves from cyberattacks. Their shortage of cybersecurity resources makes them vulnerable to cyberattacks, and both government and industry-driven initiatives have been launched to help these smaller businesses enhance their cybersecurity.

There is a tension between resilience and deterrence in national security planning for cyberspace. While technology is often the focus of security concerns, the human factor must not be overlooked. Trust may be the key concept in developing secure cyber networks.


While there is concern about the role of robots or autonomous weapons on the battlefield and their impact on human control and delivery of intended effects, advocates counter that autonomous weapons can be discriminating and more accurate than humans, creating less collateral damage.

Public sensitivity to (or aversion toward) the application of advanced technologies in the national security space has kept some researchers (many Japanese but also some American) from considering the military applications of their work.

Semiconductors, 3-D Printing, and Supply Chains

Japan is several years behind the world in adopting additive manufacturing practices like 3-D printing. While 3-D printing offers many advantages, problems persist in acquiring the necessary raw materials for printing at scale. Effective utilization of 3-D printing will require more and better education about this technology.

The US has much to learn from Asia about reviving its manufacturing sector and resourcing supply chains.

Given a 60-70% cost differential between manufacturing in the US and China, relocating low-cost production out of China makes little sense in a short-term analysis that relies solely on cost. Yet there are competing and sometimes compelling longer-term factors to consider, such as geopolitical relations, political risk, and the security of supply chains in a crisis. Establishing new supply chains demands close attention to these factors.

For the US, a “National Manufacturing Guard,” modeled after the National Guard, may be one way to ensure the availability of manufacturing capacity in a crisis such as a global pandemic.

Quantum Technology

While impressive progress has been made, the world is a long way from a game-changing quantum computing capability. Small quantum computing capabilities may appear in the next three to five years, but the potential – and the hype – outpaces the technology.

It is too early to tell which quantum technologies will have an impact on national security, and different states are pursuing different lines of effort. Japan, China, and the EU are prioritizing quantum communications, which might improve the security of encrypted communications. The US and a few other countries are focusing on quantumcomputing, which could threaten the security of encrypted communication, as well as provide useful commercial applications.

It is also too early to set broad international standards for quantum technologies. Instead, it may make more sense to focus on limited cooperation among allies or like-minded countries.


Biotechnology proliferation poses new security threats as nefarious actors will be able to access these capabilities soon.

While most of the focus of biotechnology is on medical and health-related products, it is estimated that more than 60% of physical inputs into the global economy can be replaced by biological production.

A shift to biological production can yield profound reductions in energy, water use, and land use, along with substantial cuts in “food miles” (the distance from production to the table).

For new types of food production, economies of scale are not everything: there is room for individual or startup competitiveness. However, supply capacity is a key limiter, particularly with regard to amino acids and water.

While Japan has been developing biotechnologies, gains have been limited by bureaucratic factionalism and stove-piping between government departments.

Areas of Cooperation

Technology can only be successfully managed through whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches. Policymakers should promote coordinated action between allies, partners and like-minded states, where technology-generated impacts have their most far-reaching effects.

The US-Japan Cooperation Dialogue on the Internet Economy, which included discussions with private-sector representatives, is a best practice for US-Japan cooperation. The exchange of ideas among industry, government, and academia will create an open architecture highlighting the values of transparency, vendor diversity, and standardization, creating market opportunities for US and Japanese vendors and benefitting third countries by improving supply chain security.

The fundamental challenge the US and Japan face in 5G competition is a lack of attractive, alternative options to very cheap technologies offered by China to third countries. An area of focus for the US and Japan in 5G should be R&D collaboration to ensure multi-vendor interoperability on technology challenges. Our countries should also be thinking to develop 6G technology, in particular multilateral and bilateral industry consortiums for standard-setting.

One important lesson from the US-Japan trade and technology competition of the 1980s is that the US exaggerated the “threat” from a highly capable competitor to a point that it almost missed opportunities to work together for mutual benefit. (The allies should not lose sight of opportunities to do so with China.)

The US needs an accurate understanding of government involvement in industrial development.  The vital role that Washington played in creating what came to be known as Silicon Valley is often downplayed to foster a myth of “entrepreneurial independence” and advance ideological positions that are not based on history.

Alignment between the US and Japan on trade, investment, and technology controls is necessary. Otherwise, attempts to address shared security concerns will generate friction between our two countries. One vital step Japan can make is developing more sophisticated procedures to handle classified information, including a security clearance system. As a first step, the US and Japan should update their science and technology agreement signed in 1988.













































5G 競争において米国と日本が直面している根本的な課題は、中国が第三国に提供している非常に安価な技術に代わるような魅力的な選択肢がないことである。5Gにおいて日米が焦点とすべきは、技術課題に対するマルチベンダーの相互運用性を確保するための共同研究開発である。日米はまた、6G技術の開発、特に規格設定のための産業界での多者間及び二者間のコンソーシアムについて考えるべきである。

1980 年代の日米貿易及び技術競争からの重要な教訓の一つは、米国が有力な競争相手からの「脅威」を誇張しすぎて、協力して相互に利益を得るチャンスをほとんど見逃してしまったことである。(米国の同盟国は中国との協力という観点を見失うべきではない。)




Edited by Brad Glosserman, Crystal Pryor, and Riho Aizawa

Japanese translations by Harunari Soeda, Yu Inagaki, and Erika Hongo

Download the full PDF of Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 1 – 21st Century Technologies, Geopolitics, and the US-Japan Alliance: Recognizing Game-changing Potential 

PacNet #17 – Japan and South Korea’s Alternative Paths in the Indo-Pacific

Following the first ever Quad Summit Meeting held virtually on March 12, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III travelled to Tokyo and Seoul to hold 2+2 meetings with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Although the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliance function as the “cornerstone” and “linchpin” behind US strategy in Northeast Asia, the two allies have significantly differed in their response to Washington’s call for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Nor have Tokyo and Seoul restored their fraught relationship since hitting a low point in 2019, as historical tensions triggered Japanese export controls and South Korean threats to pull out of an intelligence sharing agreement. As the Biden administration seeks to strengthen Indo-Pacific cooperation in light of growing competition with China, the gap between Japan and South Korea’s regional strategy opens the US and its allies to strategic vulnerability in a corridor of Asia that has traditionally represented the “core of US power and influence in Asia.”

Differing Indo-Pacific Pathways

When the Trump administration first unrolled the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy in 2017, Tokyo and Seoul offered contrasting responses. Japan had adopted its own Indo-Pacific strategy even before the US. As one of the originators of the concept, Japan readily embraced and aligned its Indo-Pacific strategy with the US.

As part of the 3+1 principles guiding FOIP, Trump and Abe reached an agreement in 2017 that would (1) promote and establish fundamental values, (2) pursue economic prosperity, and (3) work toward peace and stability. In addition, both leaders emphasized non-exclusivity—their willingness to work with any country sharing the same vision of FOIP. Tokyo and Washington thus coordinated their policies and projects over maritime security, energy, infrastructure, and digital connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. Enhancing a rules-based regional order has thus become the shared objective to address challenges emanating from China.

In contrast to Tokyo, Seoul showed little initial interest in FOIP. Only when it became diplomatically untenable did South Korea begin to acknowledge the Indo-Pacific narrative adopted by other regional players. Meanwhile, the Moon Jae-in government emphasized its own New Southern Policy (NSP), a strategy readily compatible with FOIP given its focus on deepening diplomatic and economic ties with ASEAN and India, but absent any robust defense or security commitments.

South Korea and Washington have since moved to explore synergies between the NSP and FOIP. The Biden administration also continues to endorse the principle of a free and open Pacific region. However, Seoul remains cautious in recognizing the strategic elements of FOIP. Most notably, despite its status as a consolidated democracy with a modernized military and advanced economy, South Korea has kept the Quad, a grouping former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo once described as “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” at arm’s length. Seoul’s involvement has been limited to “Quad-plus” dialogues addressing cybersecurity and COVID-19 issues.

Perceptions that the Indo-Pacific concept originated from Japan may have contributed to the Moon government’s lukewarm response to FOIP, especially during a period of escalating Korea-Japan tensions. More likely, however, Seoul has treaded lightly over FOIP and the Quad to avoid antagonizing China. South Korean businesses had already suffered from heavy financial loss as a direct result of Chinese economic coercion after Seoul accepted the deployment of a US missile defense system.

All regional actors, including Japan and South Korea, have at some point hedged vis-a-vis the two regional superpowers. Since Abe, however, Japan’s strategic posture of balancing has become more clear, even as it has diversified its foreign policy toolkit. Recognizing that the US influence in the region is in relative decline, Japan has adopted a two-pronged strategy to address its security needs against the backdrop of a more assertive China: beefing up the US-Japan alliance, and building security networks with “likeminded” countries in the region such as the Quad framework.

For historical and geopolitical reasons, however, Seoul perceives vulnerabilities from US-Sino competition much more acutely than Tokyo. Geopolitical rivalry between Russia, China, and Japan in the 19th century eventually resulted in Korea’s colonization by Japan. In the 20thcentury, Korea fell victim to superpower rivalry and the brewing Cold War that led to national division, and later the outbreak of a devastating war. Now, in the 21st century, South Korea seeks to avoid becoming collateral damage again as US-Sino rivalry intensifies.

While Tokyo has doubled down on US leadership and the US-Japan alliance, South Korea has tried its best to avoid getting entangled in US-Sino competition. The Moon government believes it can best navigate geopolitical tensions by standing firm on the US-South Korea alliance, but minimizing its participation in FOIP to maintain cordial relations with its largest trading partner and a major stakeholder in establishing inter-Korea peace. So far, the strategy seems to be working. US-South Korea relations remain robust. Meanwhile, Seoul and Beijing last November announced their own “2+2” dialogue covering security and diplomatic issues as part of their 10-point consensus. However, it is unclear if Seoul’s strategy is tenable if Beijing continues to challenge the existing regional order, ultimately undermining even South Korea’s long term regional interests.

Greater Indo-Pacific Convergence on the Horizon

Although Tokyo and Seoul have yet to move towards rapprochement, recent signs since President Biden has taken office suggest that the two US allies may at least be inching towards some convergence in their Indo-Pacific approach. President Moon shared his willingness to improve ties with Japan earlier this month. South Korea experts are also warming up to the idea of the Quad.

While Washington’s immediate goal is strengthening trilateral cooperation, a boost in South Korea-Japan relations will also enhance the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific order. Secretary of State Blinken, who championed US-Japan-Korea trilateral relations during his tenure as deputy secretary of state in the Obama White House, may also prove to be a persuasive interlocutor in drawing Seoul and Tokyo towards a truce. The US is particularly eager to take advantage of trilateral relations with respect to addressing Korean peace and denuclearization, and also strengthening Indo-Pacific initiatives such as cybersecurity, infrastructure development, climate change, and most recently, COVID-19 vaccination strategies. Through Japan’s FOIP and South Korea’s NSP, both countries also have an interest in supporting economic development, sustainable growth, and human capacity-building in Southeast Asia, a region that has grown in importance in the Indo-Pacific era.

Conclusion: Seize the Opportunity

Of course, any convergence in Indo-Pacific strategies brings us back to the question of regional order. At the tactical level, it may be tempting to equate the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy with the degree of policy coordination among US allies and partners. Drawing South Korea more tightly into FOIP and improving US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation would certainly count as a win for the Biden administration. However, the success of FOIP will ultimately depend on how well it can protect and promote the rule of law, democratic values, free trade, regional governance, and maritime security—the public goods that South Korea and Japan both desire and benefit from. The Biden administration has opened an opportunity for allies and partners to collaborate toward that goal. Japan and South Korea should seize that moment to work together.

Andrew Yeo ( is Professor of Politics and Director of Asian Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He is the author of Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century. 

Kei Koga ( is Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His recent publications include Japan’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ question: countering China or shaping a new regional order? (International Affairs, 2020).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #16 – Biden Seeking Middle Ground on China Policy

President Joseph Biden has long collaborated with colleagues with opposing views in the interest of achieving important policy accomplishments of broad national interest. In the process, he adjusts his positions on key issues, finding a middle position among competing pressures. For instance, Biden did this in deliberations among clashing Democratic members of Congress in trying to gain congressional approval of the $1.9 billion coronavirus relief plan.

Biden also demonstrated this tendency in adjusting his recent position on China. Candidate Biden’s rhetoric on China throughout active campaigning of 2019 was in line with other Democratic candidates in giving only secondary attention to China. The rhetoric contrasted sharply with the dramatic hardening of US policy carried out by the Trump administration, with bipartisan congressional support, at that time. Biden at first dismissed the danger posed by Beijing and later stressed that the United States had little to worry about as it was much more powerful than China. Ambivalent public opinion about China at this time suggested that the episodic disapproval of Chinese government practices by Biden and other Democratic Party candidates was an appropriate approach. Senior advisor Jake Sullivan agreed, judging that the “inside the beltway” discourse about the acute danger posed by China was politically unattractive and not shared by the American public. As public opinion at first gradually and then dramatically turned against the Chinese government in 2020 and the Republican Party focused on criticizing candidate Biden as soft on China, Biden turned sharply against China and attacked Trump policies as counterproductive and ineffective.

Seeking middle ground on China in 2021—key determinants

China policy is now under review by the Biden administration with final decisions likely coming only after consultations with US allies and partners and congressional decision makers, and following administration actions on more important domestic priorities. Going forward, determinants influencing how President Biden will adjust his approach and find an appropriate middle ground on China push policy in different directions. On one side are strong pressures to remain firm in the face of China’s many challenges to US interests; on the other side are determinants favoring some moderation of existing pressures. Public opinion, partisan politics and bipartisan congressional resolve along with China’s uncompromising behavior head the list of determinants favoring a sustained tough administration approach to China. US business interests and those of allies and partners along with practical need for cooperation with China on important issues argue for moderation toward China.

Sustain Toughness

Public Opinion. Longstanding ambivalence in US public opinion about China seen as late as 2019 has been replaced by overwhelming disapproval of the Chinese government in 2021. The widely used Gallup annual poll measuring US approval and disapproval of foreign governments showed unprecedented disapproval of China’s government unseen since the dark days of the Cold War. It surpassed US disapproval of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Only North Korea and Iran had higher disapproval ratings.

Concurrent polling by the Pew Research Center also showed overwhelming American disapproval of the Chinese government, with 82% not having confidence in President Xi Jinping. The polls illustrated rising American angst over Chinese challenges to the United States on eight issues involving human rights, economic practices, and security matters. Americans were seen in agreement against Chinese human rights and economic practices, but there were important partisan divides.

Partisan divisions; continuing bipartisan congressional resolve against China’s challenges. The Pew findings showed strong partisan division over the priority of US countermeasures against China. 63% of Republicans but only 36% of Democrats favored giving a top priority to long term US efforts to limit China’s power and influence. Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global affairs went further in underlining a partisan divide, showing that a majority of Democrats favored a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with Beijing.

The Pew findings also showed a continuing strongly partisan divide since the George W Bush administration in viewing the president’s foreign policy effectiveness, with the out-of-power party supporters viewing the president negatively and the in-power party supporters viewing the president positively. Significantly, overall public confidence in President Biden doing the right thing in foreign affairs was comparatively low at 60%; President Barack Obama’s level at the start of his first term was 74%. And the level of confidence in President Biden doing the right thing on China issues was lower still at 53%, lower than in other areas of foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem determined to defend the Trump government legacy of American countermeasures against Chinese challenges. Trump has been consistent in taking a hard line on China for almost a year and he remains a major force in American politics. The annual American Conservative Union CPAC conference in February targeted Biden’s China policy; the 120 member House of Representatives Republican Study Committee sharply condemned Biden’s China policy. Continued bipartisan congressional accord on sustaining US resolve on China showed in hearings of Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering senior administration leaders seeking Senate approval.

Chinese government behavior. Beijing remains uncompromising in the face of US countermeasures. It conducts egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang, imposes authoritarian rule in Hong Kong and targets Australia, India and Taiwan for special coercive treatment. Ever increasing are Chinese military advances to deter and if needed destroy American forces; closer collaboration with Putin’s Russia against US interests; China’s three-decade long efforts using state directed development polices to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors, fundamentally weakening the free trade economic system; using gains from state directed economic practices to support ambitions to lead future high-technology industries, displacing the United States; exploiting economic dependencies via the Belt and Road Initiative and other means; fostering corrupt and/or authoritarian governments against the West; coercing neighbors unwilling to defer to China’s ever increasing demands; employing widespread influence operations abroad using clandestine means; and disregarding international law and accepted diplomatic practices.


US business has been publicly low keyed in registering its concern over the costs to the American economy coming from existing US restrictions and tariffs targeting adverse Chinese economic practices and warning against perceived dramatic costs associated with further US efforts to “decouple” the US from China’s economy. The business interests of many US allies and partners share these broad concerns. And the governments of allies and partners generally oppose extreme measures undertaken in the last year of the Trump government arguing for ideologically based systemic opposition to the Chinese regime. They favor more nuanced approaches that the Biden government will need to consider in its in-depth consultations with allies and partners. Meanwhile, the administration’s perceived need to work cooperatively with China on climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, and other matters may involve some easing of US pressures against China.

Clashing middle grounds?

President Biden finding a middle ground with US, allied and partner interests in adopting a more moderate policy toward China appears to run up counter to the president’s efforts to find a middle ground with US public preferences and Republican decision makers to counter China’s uncompromising challenges to the United States. There is no clear path forward on how to avoid or resolve this prospective dilemma.

Robert Sutter ( is Professor Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA. A major revision of his assessment of Chinese foreign policy is Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy of an Emerging Global Force: Fifth Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2021).

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PacNet #14 – Biden vs Trump on China Policy: Similar Substance, but Style Matters

The following is the second in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part one on the expected continuities from the Trump administration.

Having examined several key aspects of the US-China relationship that will likely see more continuity than change under President Joe Biden’s administration, I will now examine some areas of expected divergence.

To begin with the most obvious point, former President Donald Trump and Biden have different profiles and personalities along almost every conceivable dimension. Whereas Trump was inexperienced, Biden has been operating at the top levels of US foreign policy for almost a half-century, including as a leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Whereas Trump preferred to fly by the seat of his pants, Biden prefers meticulous preparation in consultation with experienced advisors. Whereas Trump had a fraught relationship with many US allies and partners, Biden has already demonstrated a core commitment to leading a more consultative strategic policy. And where Trump often relied on superficialities in his personal relationships with foreign leaders—think of the exchanges of letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or the attempts at flattery with Russian President Vladimir Putin—Biden actually gets to know them and develops genuine rapport, the importance of which should not be underestimated in the world of diplomacy. This applies not only to Biden’s deep relationships with many US allies and partners, but his long association with more adversarial competitors like Chinese President Xi Jinping as well.

Biden, who has known Xi for almost a decade, had dozens of hours of private meetings with him, traveled thousands of miles with him, and will almost certainly have more cordial and candid personal interactions with the Chinese leader, which may contribute to a better read of his intentions and more effective bilateral communication. Following their first exchange on Feb. 10, Chinese state media said it showed “in-depth communication” and remarked that it was a “very positive” sign that the call lasted for more than two hours.

Another key difference will be greater interagency coordination within the US government, as many inexperienced officials and Trump loyalists have been replaced with policy experts. Longtime State Department official James Dobbins noted that during the Trump administration “many outsiders were recruited, far more than normal, but few had even a modicum of relevant experience. Those who did, for instance the individuals charged with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear portfolios, could never overcome the obstacle posed by flawed presidential policy.”

By contrast, most of Biden’s senior foreign policy officials have deep experience in government, as well as (in Dobbins’ words) a “reputation for competence and collegiality.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, for example, had earlier served as a top aide to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Secretary of State Antony Blinken first joined the NSC under the Clinton administration in 1994, serving in a succession of senior foreign policy positions ever since. And the officials operating at lower levels of the ladder within the various key bureaucracies—the undersecretaries, deputy secretaries, ambassadors, and so forth—are similarly versed in their areas of responsibility. Expertise on China in particular is impressive, with well-known experts like Rush Doshi, Michael Chase, and Laura Rosenberger given prominent posts at the Defense Department and NSC. All of which should contribute to fewer unforced errors in the new administration; if and when President Biden takes a phone call from the president of Taiwan, for example, as President-elect Trump did in December 2016, few in the China-watching community will be scratching their heads and questioning whether it was a considered decision or one made on the fly.

A final key difference between the old and new administrations will be a greater emphasis by Biden on coalition-building, a necessary element of any China policy yet one that was constantly neglected by virtue of personal style during the Trump years. Given the current size and projected growth trajectory of the Chinese economy, Washington does not have sufficient leverage to compel any changes in Beijing unilaterally; buy-in from our allies and partners will be necessary for there to be any hope on that front. Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly picked unnecessary fights with key Indo-Pacific allies over isolated matters such as South Korean alliance contributions and US-Japanese trade negotiations, stoking resentment and concerns about Washington’s reliability. Having served as a senior Korea analyst for the US military during the first several years of the Trump administration, I can testify to how much hair was pulled out by policymakers during these sorts of diplomatic scuffles, and the costs to our reputation were real and severe.

Given enough time, though, Biden may be able to heal some of this damage and restore at least some confidence in American leadership among our traditional allies. Biden will likely also seek to expand this counter-China effort to newer partners like India, capitalizing on preexisting border tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. There is also increasing US pressure on NATO allies to become more engaged on the China portfolio, as witnessed in recent years as Washington lobbied various European nations to block installation of Huawei communications infrastructure or risk compromising intelligence cooperation. Somewhat surprisingly, Europe has begun to show positive signs in this direction. Earlier this month, France deployed two naval vessels, including a nuclear attack submarine to the South China Sea to show solidarity with the US, Australia, and Japan, and the UK has made similar moves in the recent past. China analysts continue watching to see if these initial moves are followed up over time with a more sustained campaign.

In short, the new Biden administration will offer sharp changes for the US on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, and China will see some changes as well as outlined above. In keeping with the thesis of my earlier article, however, it is important to put these changes in perspective and note how they are generally more stylistic than substantive. In aggregate, our China policy will almost certainly be one of the areas that experiences the least modification in the Biden White House. The former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously called for his nation to “hide its strength and bide its time” rather than make a blatant dash for superpower status. But as Secretary Blinken remarkedduring his confirmation hearings last month,

what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping as the leader, has been that the hiding and biding has gone away. They are much more assertive in making clear that they seek to become in effect the leading country in the world, the country that sets the norms, that sets the standards, and to put forward a model they hope other countries and people will ascribe to.

As this realization has become less and less debatable, it has driven China hands from different ideological persuasions to set aside their disagreements and come together to focus on this emerging and systemic global challenge. Given that US-China relations will arguably be the most important strategic issue of our time, preserving this consensus will be essential, especially in an age where so little else in Washington is bipartisan any longer.

Eric Feinberg ( is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #12 – China Policy from Trump to Biden: More Continuity than Change

The following is the first in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part two on the expected changes from the Trump administration.

Media coverage of President Joe Biden’s first months in office has concentrated on the many areas where he has broken sharply with his predecessor. In the first 72 hours alone, executive orders were signed stopping the American withdrawal from the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, reversing the “Muslim ban,” and halting construction on the southern border wall. One area that looks increasingly like it will exhibit greater continuity than change, however, is US policy toward China, which has emerged as a near-peer competitor on the world stage far sooner than most anticipated. In fact, while chasms remain between Democratic and Republican perspectives on many foreign policy issues—Israel, Iran, Russia, etc.—there seems to be uncommon convergence on the challenge posed by China, at least substantively if not stylistically.

The hardened approach among Democratic policymakers has been driven by disillusionment with China from the Obama years. In a recent BBC interview, Evan Medeiros, who served as President Obama’s China director on the National Security Council, conceded that he and other Obama-era China experts had misjudged how adversarial Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be in comparison to his predecessor:

“It’s important to keep in mind that the first Chinese leader that we had to deal with, Hu Jintao, was a very, very different leader than Xi Jinping: he was far less ambitious, he was far less aggressive, and he was far less willing to accept and tolerate risk and friction externally. So, when I look back at our China policy, I wish that we had recognized quicker how different Xi Jinping was from Hu Jintao and recognized how he was going to take China politically, economically, and strategically in a different direction.”

As President Biden continues looking to former Obama officials to fill national security roles in his administration, the China hands will be carrying this realization with them and appear resolved not to underestimate Beijing again. Following his first conversation with Xi since taking office, Biden warned, “if we don’t get moving, [China is] going to eat our lunch.”

This article will examine some expected areas of continuity with President Trump’s China policy, and a subsequent article will look at some other areas of expected divergence.

In reading the tea leaves on areas of expected continuity, a major one will be an enduring recognition within the administration that a coordinated, whole-of-government effort is necessary to effectively counter China. If China is seeking to erode American influence across a variety of domains, then America cannot respond in a disjointed fashion but must ensure that the full array of cabinet departments and the Intelligence Community are all on the same page and are fully leveraging their resources and authorities. To that end, Axios reported last month that “virtually every team in the [Biden] National Security Council, from technology to global health to international economics, will incorporate China into their work,” calling it as “a concrete example of the ‘whole-of-government’ approach toward China that officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations have supported.” Moreover, the Indo-Pacific team led by Biden’s Asia tsar Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama administration official with deep expertise on East Asia, “will be the largest regional NSC directorate, a sign of how this NSC is prioritizing China and broader Indo-Pacific issues.” In many ways, this incipient US approach mimics the way Beijing approaches foreign policy, coordinating all elements of the country’s “comprehensive national power”—military forces, economic power, natural resources, scientific expertise, and so forth—to obtain maximum leverage over other countries rather than treating each as a separate domain.

Another expected area of continuity will be a readiness—eagerness, even—to publicly criticize the Chinese government, something earlier administrations had often eschewed out of an omnipresent concern that it might damage bilateral relations. There have been several high-profile examples already in the last month or two.

During his confirmation hearings, now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred with the Trump administration’s assessment that China’s ongoing repression of its Muslim Uyghur population constituted a genocide, emboldening other countries such as Canada to follow suit. In a call to China’s top diplomat in early February, Blinken again criticized Beijing for its ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and for its reluctance to condemn the Feb. 1 coup d’état in Myanmar. Following China’s Feb. 11 banning of the BBC for its critical coverage of COVID-19 and Uyghur concentration camps, the State Department condemned the move as “part of a wider campaign to suppress free media in China.” We can expect such sweeping criticism to continue as the Biden team seeks to fulfill its commitment to hold the line against the Chinese and begin to reinvigorate Washington’s advocacy for democracy and human rights abroad, especially as new polling reveals historic levels of bipartisan unfavorability among the American people for Beijing.

Perhaps the most significant area of continuity will be on military policy. Late last year, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report said Beijing “has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the [People’s Liberation Army] in nearly every respect,” and that “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.” The PLA has made dramatic improvements in its ability to conduct joint operations, has substantially expanded its overseas footprint, and has developed a suite of advanced missiles that make it significantly riskier for the US to operate close to China’s shores. The Pentagon report also said the PLA Navy had surpassed the US Navy as the largest in the world, with over 300 ships and submarines in operation and many more in production.

All indications are that the Biden team understands the scale of this military threat in the Indo-Pacific and will prioritize the region accordingly. In early February, two US carrier strike groups held simultaneous drills in Chinese-claimed waters of the South China Sea—the first such major exercise in seven months and the first of the new administration—and a destroyer separately conducted a so-called “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, through the Taiwan Strait. These symbolic moves will be followed up by more concrete measures in the coming months and years, like insulating the US Indo-Pacific Command from expected defense budget cuts; in early March, Politico reported that INDOPACOM had asked Congress for almost $50 billion in additional funding this year and was expected to get a favorable response. Biden will also place substantial emphasis on rehabilitating relationships with key military allies in the region, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, and is reportedly already planning a virtual summit with the Quad later this month. It is less clear whether Washington will maintain the same high level of engagement with Taiwan that was seen during the latter Trump years, as that has been particularly inflammatory to Beijing and the strategic benefits to the US have been unclear.

A final example of continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations will probably be on broad economic policy vis-à-vis China. Some of the more contested Trump policies, such as his unpredictable application of trade tariffs, will almost certainly fall by the wayside, but an emphasis on combatting unfair Chinese trade practices and applying sanctions where necessary will remain, as well as an acute awareness of Beijing’s malign cyber activities. Chinese economic and industrial espionage over the past two decades has been responsible for the theft of key strategic technologies with military applications and has cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Once upon a time, American corporations may have been willing to swallow the costs of such activities in the belief that access to Chinese markets would eventually compensate for the losses, but that tradeoff has become less and less tenable as the mirage of eventual full market access has proven elusive.

None of this is to say that Biden’s China policy will be indistinguishable from Trump’s, but for all the reasons outlined above, differences will tend to be more stylistic than substantive. The subsequent article in this series will take a look at some of these areas of expected divergence between the Trump and Biden administrations and their implications for the US-China relationship going forward.

Eric Feinberg ( is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

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PacNet #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont ( is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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PacNet #10 – The New US Diplomacy with China: ‘Keep Your Promises’

“If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

So said Deng Xiaoping in a speech to the United Nations in 1974. As if responding to Deng’s call, there has been discussion about the feasibility of an American strategy to create distance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. No wonder Beijing has responded furiously to this idea, including by criticizing the “longer telegram.” In fact, the author of the “longer telegram” claims that “it would be extremely hazardous for US strategies … to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration’s document on the US strategic approach toward China also states that “US policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” Nevertheless, the idea that the US should urge the Chinese people to overthrow the CCP continues to attract attention.

The idea of creating political division within China deserves further scrutiny, given its potential impacts on the US-China relationship. What is the logic behind this idea? What are the problems? A critical review of the strategy suggests a different approach: Washington should instead focus on pressing China to live up to its own promises and obligations.

There are at least two arguments in support of “creating division” within China. First, China experts have found that Beijing has compromised in international disputes when the CCP faced internal threats, including crises in legitimacy. Therefore, hawks would argue that division within China is beneficial for US national security. But CCP failure to maintain political stability is one thing; the US attempting to engineer a political division is quite another. Chinese people will more likely link a US effort to the memory of national humiliation, when Western powers carved their own spheres of influence into the country in the late 19th century. They will also readily agree to the CCP’s narrative that the US seeks to divide China to contain the rise of a peer competitor.

Second, liberals would argue that the US should support the Chinese people precisely because the US respects their democratic aspirations. However, several surveys conducted by American scholars in China have consistently found that Chinese citizens are highly satisfied with their government’s performance. More importantly, Chinese people think that China has been “democratized” over time: the 2020 annual survey of Democracy Perception Index found that 73% of Chinese respondents consider China democratic—just 49% of Americans believe the same about the US. By contrast, given the widespread perception of rising racism and McCarthyism targeting Chinese scholars and students in the US, efforts to inspire the Chinese people to challenge the CCP would only stimulate anti-American nationalism; the more the US tries to create division within China, the more Chinese people will unite against the US.

However, the assessment that the CCP is already significantly divided over Xi’s leadership remains valid. As the author of the “longer telegram” rightly observes, Xi Jinping’s abrasive foreign policy, over-centralization of power, and illiberal policies have generated widespread frustration among Chinese elites. According to a former Central Party School professor’s testimony, published by Foreign Affairs in 2020, there was hope for the expansion of political reform when Xi took power in 2013. Indeed, during his final press briefing in 2012, former premier Wen Jiabao insisted that China “must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country.” Xi was expected to further open up China’s political system, but instead shattered such expectations; Xi even removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2018. There are unfulfilled promises by previous leaders Xi has failed to carry out.

The US should ask the Xi regime to live up to China’s promises and obligations. US officials can collect all the statements by Chinese leaders before Xi about the autonomy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and the exact wording on civil rights and liberty, as codified in the Chinese constitution. As Ralph Cossa has summarized: “It’s unreasonable to ask them to be like us; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to follow their own promises.” This approach would be effective because there is a human psychology that people feel most pressed when demanded to honor their own words. Likewise, international relations scholars have found that political rhetoric and commitments, if repeatedly made, carry a coercive power over national leaders.

By extension, US officials should be familiar with words of wisdom from Chinese intellectuals and great thinkers officially acknowledged by the Chinese state. A good example is the speech by Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security advisor, in May 2020. Speaking in fluent Mandarin Chinese, Pottinger quoted Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer, to make his point on the problems of censorship in China. He also drew on the iconic student protests on May 4, 1919 to argue that China did its best when it listened to the diverse opinions of average citizens. In another speech, also in Chinese, he even cited Confucius to make his point about the need for candid conversation between the US and China. Chinese officials and scholars criticized Pottinger’s speeches, but the unusually severe censorship that followed also reflects how Xi did not want  Chinese citizens to discuss what the Chinese philosophers and intellectuals have said about open society and free thinking in China.

No doubt Chinese officials will continue to be creative in rebuttal. They may make the usual case that Americans do not understand the unique history or culture of China. They may be more candid, arguing that past promises are irrelevant because situations have changed. But it would not be difficult for Washington to retort that the US is not imposing its own values or visions, but simply asking China to keep its word. For example, Deng Xiaoping once said “after China resumes the exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life … will remain unchanged. … Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong … Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.” These promises were imbedded in a legally binding treaty between China and the UK registered with the United Nations. Washington can present the evidence of all the changes made in defiance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, including the national security law.

The CCP would likely criticize the US with the rhetoric of “what about all those problems in the US?” or “mind your own failure to keep promises.” If China presses the US to live up to its own words, US officials should welcome the suggestion. The need for domestic renewal is something American citizens can agree on. If the standard of competition is about who fulfills their promises faster and more faithfully carries out all the positive promises their leaders have made for their people and the world, there would be no better form of great power competition.

Sungmin Cho ( is Professor of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a US Department of Defense academic institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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PacNet #9 – The Quad’s Future is Tied to Soft Security

This piece is based on authors’ presentations/views at the SPF NUS-ISAS Joint Seminar on “Institutionalizing the Quad: Can it Seize the Momentum for the Future?” held on January 20, 2021.

There has been much dialogue over the future of the Quadrilateral process (Quad 2.0) involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific, with many envisioning a militarization of the Quad or a securitization of the Indo-Pacific through security-centric agreements. Such debates extend to the extreme of proposing an Asian equivalent to NATO in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contended in October 2020 that formalizing the Quad could help build a “true security framework” to meet the challenges posed by Beijing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has asserted that the Atlantic Alliance “must become global” and departing US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun affirmed that some speculative discussions on the prospects of forming an “Indo-Pacific NATO” had taken place on the sidelines of the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Such remarks further fuel discussions of a potential militarized Quad, a grand coalition in the Indo-Pacific to contain an increasingly assertive China.

Notwithstanding the merits of such a debate, it is worth exploring how the Quad can be institutionalized in the region, instead of only instigating a competitive power framework. This holds utmost importance, with new US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aiming to “carry forward” the Quad format as a “fundamental foundational” aspect of America’s Indo-Pacific policy, further highlighted with the Biden administration’s recent proposal to hold a leadership summit of Quad members. For more than a decade and a half, the idea of Quad has survived in Indo-Pacific, starting with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian Parliament in 2007, which triggered the debate over the Quad process. Since the mechanism’s revival in 2017, Quad member states have held several high-level and high-profile ministerial meetings, symbolizing the significance of the grouping in their foreign outlooks. While Chinese expansionism is the central motivating factor, a lack of commonality over whether to “contain China” or, instead, manage China’s influence and rise remains among Quad members, evidenced by the lack of a joint statement. How can member states institutionalize the Quad process while building a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific?

Above all, an attempt to institutionalize the Quad must be drawn on a practical and soft security framework that can gradually transform into a cohesive security (and, perhaps subsequently, a military) unit, shaped by the changing geopolitical situation. The goal of the Quad process, as it appears in their respective official statements, is to preserve a “rules-based order” in Indo-Pacific; a soft security framework must be drawn on their political, economic and ideological commonality. More importantly, such a framework must have a non-military connotation even though it would imbibe some maritime security features. Alongside such a soft security apparatus, the institutionalization of the Quad will invariably depend on building an exclusive Indo-Pacific identity, drawing its strength from democratic ideas and norms. The Quad is a political process, tied to immense soft and hard security objectives. Therefore, before (or alongside) exercising its military-economic muscles, the Quad must initiate deeper cultural and ideological diplomacy tracks to build political synergy that could eventually—given the right strategic circumstances—translate to a tighter security, and eventually a military, arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. Like NATO, driven not only by the Soviet threat but also to promote European political integration, Quad states must seek to establish solidarity and synergy before militarization.

Extending such a soft power network to further an Asian NATO equivalent entails careful political, economic, strategic, and ideological maneuvering among Quad members, who have had a clear divide in their China policies in the last two decades. In the post-pandemic period all Quad states, including the US, continue to share strong economic or multilateral interactions with Beijing. The latest EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is a reminder that the “China connect” is a strategic reality in regional and global affairs—and Quad countries are no exceptions. Regardless whether the Quad becomes a formalized platform, all member states will need to deal with China in regional and global affairs. Although Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar military exercises undoubtedly strengthens arguments for a securitized (or even militarized) framework in the Indo-Pacific under the aegis of the Quad, Canberra’s addition does not necessarily imply creating a larger regional nexus aimed at managing China militarily. The Quad must have a value-driven approach, having drawn its strength from the “rule of law,” preserving freedom of navigation and aiming to implement democratic ideals with a “free and open” framework.

The Quad states must, firstly, invest in capability development efforts to create multi-layered networks among educational institutions, promote think tank forums in concert with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, and build scholarships or fellowship opportunities that promote ideological exchanges. Ultimately, the aim must be to build and sustain a stronger Indo-Pacific intellectual chorus challenging authoritarian and unilateral ideals and initiatives. The Quad countries need to promote a model for annual dialogues among think tanks, universities, and thinkers who could establish a platform for enhancing and amplifying such ideals. In this vein, an Indo-Pacific university or defense university in the region, with joint investment by Quad countries, could also boost intellectual exchanges and studies on how to strengthen Indo-Pacific security through coordinated political and economic engagement, while building an identity for the region and boosting purposeful maritime cooperation and effective maritime governance.

For instance, the evolution of BRICS from an abstract assembly to a concrete consortium of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa illustrates this effect. As a grouping of ambitious rising powers, BRICS has tried to influence global governance debates in its favor, even if India and China are not on the same frequency over a range of matters. More importantly, BRICS has emerged as a cohesive unit to promote the New Development Bank (NDB) as an institution the Indo-Pacific region needs. If Quad states can draw inferences from the BRICS’ model while promoting a rules-based, fair, and equitable banking culture within the Indo-Pacific, it can expedite and form overtures to a maritime nexus and connectivity-focused infrastructure development, eventually boosting and complementing supply chain networks.

The second critical variable for institutionalizing the Quad entails drawing lessons from the post-Cold War era, especially regarding creation of institutions. If China’s belligerence is the biggest motivator for the Quad to strengthen its guard in the Indo-Pacific, then China’s institution-building capabilities should merit equal deliberations and discussions among Quad countries. The gradual evolution and formalization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), from the informal, low-profile Shanghai Five to a well-established multilateral organization, is a successful example of Chinese enterprise in this area. The “Shanghai Five” was meant to address boundary disputes and cross-border terrorism between China and the Central Asian countries. Over time, Beijing systematically expanded the grouping’s canvas to include economic, political, and security objectives, thus building a cohesive multilateral institution in Eurasia. Today, such comprehensiveness has become the hallmark of China’s deepened and broadened security approach, aptly reflected in the SCO charter. Beijing defines security beyond expedient military terms, touching upon critical economic and political domains. To compete with China, let alone build a cohesive military unit to this effect, the Quad members must first find synergy within their own strategic objectives across the spectrum—to expedite a network of intellectual engagement commensurate with their objectives in the region.

Given the onset of a new administration in the White House, and the political uncertainty in Japan owing to its upcoming October 2021 election, the time has come to invest greater thought vis-à-vis the Quad process and guide its intellectual future. Rather than a mechanism aimed only at contesting China, the Quad must emerge as a soft and succinct regional cohesive grouping that promotes a culture of democratic ideals and links intellectual persuasion with the Indo-Pacific architecture to further its acceptance and institutionalization.

Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.” 

Ippeita Nishida is a Senior Research Fellow of the International Peace and Security Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), Tokyo.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #8 – Rebooting the UN-US Partnership: Global Goals Require Indo-Pacific Focus

The Indo-Pacific region has seen a rise in political instability in recent years. The Trump administration and China have been at loggerheads, through the WHO, in formulating a global approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The region has experienced a rise in human rights violations, evidenced by the bitter treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian crackdowns in Thailand and Cambodia. The Indo-Pacific has also witnessed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Indo-China border, eliciting a defensive posture from regional powers such as Australia, Japan, and India.

In full view of political and human rights crises in the Indo-Pacific, the UN has remained silent. It has failed to enact reforms to its major organs, such as the Security Council. It has failed to bring meaningful reform to the Human Rights Council, which remains populated by serial violators, including China and Iran, as well as its inability to find its voice on rights violations against Muslim populations in China, Myanmar, and India. The UN has remained “concerned” over India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act and subsequent Hindu violence toward Muslims, China’s housing of Uyghur Muslims, or the plight of the Rohingya, but has not insisted through Special Procedures that independent investigators gain exclusive access to the most sensitive areas. China, like other autocratic regimes in the region, has repeatedly denied or stalled invitations to UN experts wanting to conduct official visits.

Despite these shortcomings, the incoming Biden administration represents an opportunity to reinvigorate ties between the US and the UN. Doing so could catalyze economic growth and provide stability in the Indo-Pacific. Regionwide, there is no shortage of challenges that need concrete solutions, including institutional reforms—both at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council—and a more robust climate change agenda.

Past and present American administrations have discussed reform at the United Nations, chiefly in the Security Council. Static since 1945, the aging body needs to be made fit for purpose in the modern era. To accomplish this, additional permanent members should be added—with two equally qualified candidates in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have lobbied for years with limited support. India has been an active participant in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe and Japan has been a leading contributor of development assistance (ODA) for decades. Their constant presence on the Security Council, combined with changes to veto powers, would add two vital allies capable of defending the international order and keeping the peace. Adding a third new permanent member from Africa would win concessions from the African continent—which has contributed proposals in the past that have received little recognition in the General Assembly. One of the principle strengths of the United Nations is its commitment to the equality of states, vested in Article 2 of the UN Charter. The Security Council is a forum where Great Powers exert influence on global affairs, yet to maintain that influence, the US needs a proactive Security Council that can both provide support to multilateral initiatives and advance its interests, as well as hold human rights violators and autocratic regimes accountable.

On the human rights front, the UN could facilitate reform proposals for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration walked away from the Council in 2018, with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the body a “hypocritical and self-serving organization.” The Secretary-General António Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate the reform of the Council by mandating the norm of taking into account the contribution of potential candidates to the Council, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. While the US is sure to return to the Human Rights Council under a Biden administration, it should back a proposal that would help eliminate states with poor human rights records, such as limiting Council seats to just one term or increasing the threshold to win a seat from a simple plurality to a two-thirds majority. Abandoning the Human Rights Council, rather than advocating for its reform is short-sighted thinking—a decision that left American allies in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan and Australia, in the lurch.

Climate change is another area of cooperation where the United Nations can engage with the Biden administration. Biden has already signaled as much by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. While Asia’s economic engine now fuels the global economy, it is responsible for more than 50% of global greenhouse gasses through rapid industrialization. The Indo-Pacific needs to make climate change a higher priority, particularly in light of recent natural disasters. The US should address a number of climate vulnerabilities by dramatically upscaling humanitarian and disaster response exercises, as seen in the Cobra Gold and Tiger Triumph exercises with Thailand and India. Climate change needs to be viewed, including by the US as a security threat. Global temperature changes facilitate seawater rise, create storm surges, and strain fisheries. Climate change pressures put stress on bilateral relations, particularly in ASEAN, which are at risk of violent naval confrontations as a result of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Biden administration would be wise to adopt a coherent national strategy on climate change, a glaring hole in Trump’s anti-science doctrine, which ignored Department of Defense warnings, particularly on the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

A focus on environmental initiatives would not only bolster Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but other states in the region such as Japan, Australia, and India with Free and Open Indo-Pacific visions and mutual environmental concerns. China need not be excluded from the group; the 2nd Belt Road Forum recently demonstrated Beijing is placing greater emphasis on the environment in BRI projects. Promoting crosswalks through the convening power of the UN can kill two birds with one stone, contributing to climate change cooperation in the Indo-Pacific while moving the China-US rivalry away from a zero-sum approach. The UN should avail itself of this opportunity. The UN could provide cooperation mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts in the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea and South Asia. Piggybacking on pre-existing initiatives such as the US-Mekong Partnership or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region may be a template for expanded multilateral cooperation.

To reinvigorate its partnership, America and the UN must proactively adopt policies that resonate with the Biden administration’s multilateral and internationalist inclinations. Institutional reform, human rights, and climate change cooperation are key areas of synergy in the broader Indo-Pacific.

Mark S. Cogan ( is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka; and a communications consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Twitter handle:@markscogan.

Dr. Stephen Nagy ( is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo; a distinguished fellow with Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation; a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #4 – 2021: A Year of Immense Frustration in and with Japan

The year ahead may prove to be one of the most frustrating in recent Japanese history. Despite an evolving and uncertain strategic environment, the future could be bright: Japan has unprecedented opportunities to shape that development. Unfortunately, however, structural and attitudinal constraints may slam the door on those options. It is possible to overcome these impediments, but it’s hard to have confidence that Japan will do so.

As Tokyo surveys the world beyond its shores, it should be optimistic. The Biden administration accepts and embraces core principles of Japan’s own foreign policy: multilateralism, institutionalism, a consultative process, and a commitment to rule of law. Most compelling, the new administration views Beijing with suspicion and is committed to multidimensional competition with China.

The Biden team sees alliances as critical to any strategy to engage China. Washington will applaud and encourage forward-leaning partners, especially given the need in the US to focus on domestic affairs (to rebuild national consensus) and reapportion burdens within security partnerships. This gives Tokyo ample space to promote and pursue its own foreign policy within an alliance framework. The end of the Trump administration will also shift the parameters of host nation support talks, which should reduce one source of tension in the relationship.

Tokyo has a reinvigorated and restructured national security bureaucracy that has enjoyed eight years of success. Japan has been modernizing its military—much more remains to be done—and promoting capacity-building among regional security forces. Resuscitation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other trade deals underscore Japan’s commitment to a rules-based global economic order and its ability to support it. All this has been done in the service of a strategic approach to regional security, one articulated in the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and which has been adopted by the US (even if the words may change) and other regional governments.

A new appreciation for national economic statecraft gives Tokyo a chance to focus on and address emerging 21st century challenges. A new National Security Strategy, due to be published this year, provides an opportunity for bilateral cooperation and coordination as Tokyo and Washington simultaneously craft their own versions of that document. Japan should be confident as it engages the new US administration and be ready to push the partnership forward in ways that respond to its own concerns and preferences.

Japan should call for consultations as soon as Biden’s Asia team is assembled, and plan for a Security Consultative Committee (SCC or “2+2”) meeting by year’s end. Host-nation support talks should reach a quick—even if short-term—solution so that alliance managers can consider new and creative apportionments of roles and missions to better fit current realities. Among the discussion items should be alignment of national security strategies. Integral to any talks is a candid assessment of deterrence and ways it can be strengthened. A blue-sky assessment of alliance options is in order. Given the dynamics and shifts in the regional security environment, creativity is at a premium.

That potential will likely go unrealized, however. Japan’s leadership is currently weak, divided and, preoccupied with the fate of the 2020 Olympic and ParaOlympic Games. Combined with enduring misgivings about Democratic administrations in the US, the result will likely be inertia, if not paralysis.

An absence of strong leadership is the first problem. Any successor to Abe Shinzo would likely suffer in comparison: Abe, the longest serving leader in Japanese history, had a vision for his country and the determination to realize it. Suga Yoshihide was the consensus candidate to succeed Abe after his surprise resignation last summer, but the promise of policy continuity has been overtaken by an absence of vision and foreign policy experience. Suga took up where Abe left off, promoting the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” pursuing closer security ties with like-minded governments like that of Australia, as well as key Southeast Asian partners like Indonesia and Vietnam. More visible and important to voters has been the return of scandals from the Abe era, a third wave of COVID-19 infections (the most severe yet), and Suga’s uninspiring performance in addressing them.

A weakened prime minister allowed faction leaders to reassert themselves and play a larger role in policy. An internal party struggle over how to deal with China now threatens the most important pillar of Tokyo’s foreign and security policies. LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro, who favors a softer line toward Beijing, is ascendant, and China hawks are retreating. A December survey of Japanese business reveals that the corporate sector too favors a softer approach toward China and would like the Biden administration to blunt the sharper edges of the Trump hard line. Insiders complain about a lack of leadership and the weakening of the Kantei when effective policy demands strong central authority to pursue a whole of government approach.

An additional distraction is the debate over the fate of the 2020 Summer Olympic and ParaOlympic Games, postponed from last summer because of the COVID outbreak and tentatively scheduled for this summer. Hosting the Games is a matter of tremendous prestige for the Japanese government—the public is far less enamored—and it weighs heavily on decision making in Tokyo. It will absorb considerable political capital of a government that may already be overdrawn, undermining the desire or capacity to push security policy or move forward on alliance issues. All countries must balance public health and economic needs as they respond to the COVID outbreak but the Olympics are a thumb on the scale in Japan, and have contributed to an erosion of trust in the Japanese government.

Polls offer a grim assessment. After taking office with some of the highest approval ratings in modern Japanese history, the Cabinet approval rating plummeted 32 points to 42% by the end of the year.

The second problem is longstanding suspicion in Tokyo of Democratic administrations in Washington. While the alliance with Japan enjoys bipartisan support in the United States, Japanese instinctively feel more comfortable with Republicans. This reflex will be complemented by nostalgia for the Trump years, during which Japan had a special relationship with the US president. Abe’s status as the “Trump whisperer” meant that Japan never felt the brunt of the president’s anger. Japan had space to pursue preferred policies and US rhetoric aligned with Japanese interests. There may have been some problems, but benefits outweighed costs. The departures of Trump and Abe have kindled fears that the alliance will be hobbled.

Combine a weak and divided leadership in Tokyo with suspicion of the new US administration and Japan will have little capacity or incentive for creative and entrepreneurial policy making. Instead, fearful of rejection or misinterpretation and eager to conserve precious political capital there will be an inclination to hunker down and cling to the status quo. This “shelter in place” mentality will do the alliance and Japan a disservice.

This outcome could change. A prime minister that is visionary and dynamic could alter Japan’s trajectory. Recent developments put that prospect within reach. As long as it remains a mere possibility, however, the gap between what could be and what is will widen. Frustration may be one of the better outcomes.

Brad Glosserman ( is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.