In his maiden tour to Asia as the US President, Joe Biden announced that the US will “defend” Taiwan if China attacked. The announcement, while very significant, signals a concerted US attempt to up the ante against China at a time when Washington is already fighting a war against Russia in Ukraine. This announcement, thus, signals how the US is fully involved in a geopolitical struggle with its strategic peers, a struggle that, first and foremost, is supposed to serve one cardinal objective for the US: a global political and financial/economic system under Washington’s hegemony. This objective can be realised only by fighting, weakening or, more ambitiously, defeating Washington’s rivals. It is, therefore, no surprise that Washington’s aggressive push to expand NATO to include Ukraine provoked the present Russia-Ukraine war. This war most certainly increased the level of hostility between Russia and the US, which has led to a major ‘re-unification’ of an internally divided NATO i.e., most European members of the alliance, under the US leadership. In this context, it is no less predictable that the US is actively expanding its conflict with China and making aggressive statements to infuse a sort of ‘transatlantic unity’ in Asia and the Pacific.
Ever since its establishment in 2004, the Quad has been dormant, with successive US presidents trying to revamp it in different ways. For Joe Biden – who himself launched ‘Asia Pivot’ as part of the Obama administration’s plan to establish a strategic alliance in Asia and the Pacific – the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created an opportunity to use conflict – or prospects of a military conflict involving China – as a strategy to cement a military alliance. He made his intentions clear in Tokyo on the occasion of the Quad summit when he reiterated the US commitment to defending Taiwan.
This announcement is a major shift from the 1979 US-Taiwan Relations Act, which enabled the US to supply “arms of defensive character” to Taiwan and “resist,” diplomatically, any efforts to force Taiwan into submission. China, while emphasising its ‘One China policy,’ has not resorted to the use of force against Taiwan, yet the US has now arrogated to itself the right to militarily “defend” Taiwan in ways that would involve the US military in active combat against China.
By militarily committing to Taiwan, the US has communicated as much to Taiwan and China as to the Indo-Pacific nations, including the ASEAN states whose leaders recently met Biden in Washington. This summit produced no significant anti-China success for the US, making it all the more necessary for the US to use Biden’s Asia summit as an opportunity to raise the level of aggression vis-à-vis China.
Whether China will ever attack Taiwan and whether the US will actually involve its military against China remains to be seen, but the very promise of defending Taiwan is meant for other states to join the US bandwagon. This is evident from the fact that the 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that Biden launched during this visit does not include Taiwan.
The launch of the IPEF is a crucial development insofar as it allowed the US to attach an ‘economic component’ to its policy that hitherto relied primarily on defence treaties, such as the AUKUS. Many states in Asia and the Pacific – especially, the ASEAN states – have repeatedly emphasised their desire to enhance their economic and trade partnership with the US. But this desire has not been fulfilled in the absence of any US-led economic framework, a void that was created by the Trump administration’s decision to exit from the Pacific trade pact.
The launch of the IPEF is meant to fill that void, and secure in the words of the US National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan “US leadership in the region” (by challenging and, ultimately, displacing that of China). But how good is this framework as compared to other frameworks encompassing the target region? As even many reports in the western media have highlighted, the framework is more form than substance, which means that the pact’s actual ability to rival China in Asia and the Pacific is extremely limited.
As compared to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the IPEF offers no reduction of trade tariffs to the member countries. The IPEF’s official purpose, according to the White House, is to “advance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness and competitiveness of our economies.”
Therefore, if the purpose of the project is to offer, as the US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, reiterated “an alternative” to China, this project is years behind the kind of pacts – the RCEP, for instance – that have already established deep roots in the region.
While all countries – India, Brunei, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – expressed support for the initiative (why wouldn’t they support the rhetoric of economic connectivity!), they also know that the IPEC has major hurdles to overcome. Most importantly, the question is: will the Biden administration be able to secure US Congressional approval for this pact?
If the US wants to make the IPEF a fully-fledged trade pact, it requires Congressional approval. But if the US decides not to make it a traditional pact, it would, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service, “limit” the potential benefits of the pact in terms of the core objective of stamping US presence in the Asia Pacific as a counterweight to China. The report maintains that:
“A number of observers, however, argue that without binding new trade rules, including on market access, the IPEF is unlikely to match China’s initiatives, meaning the United States may “remain on the sidelines,” potentially impairing the Administration’s ability to promote its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific, where countries follow the rules, cooperate whenever they can, and resolve their differences peacefully.”
Therefore, the US ability to actually counter China by offering a concrete economic framework remains severely limited. Therefore, Biden’s rhetoric notwithstanding, regional countries will continue to expand economic ties with China, making it more and more difficult for the US to come up with a real plan to reverse this reality. Mere rhetoric and elusive plans are unlikely to pay the dividends the US imagines to gain.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.