H I G H L I G H T S

•   Biden Releases Strategic Guidance
•   Coming of the Techno-Alliances
•   Indo-Pacific Missile Gap
•   Climate Coalition
•   US Public and China

Biden Releases Strategic Guidance

The new United States administration is rapidly rolling out policies on the domestic and foreign policy front even before it has completed the process of confirming many of its senior personnel. Domestically, it was able to pass a $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package designed to ameliorate the economic damage of the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill also incorporated some major reforms of the welfare system.

Focussing on foreign policy, what has been striking is President Joe Biden’s tough stance on China. The signalling has been strong: Taiwan’s representative invited to the inauguration, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken saying Donald Trump was right to take an aggressive stance against China, carriers sent in response to air intrusions near Taiwan, and Biden raising human rights in his first formal phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A set of more tangible responses to the China challenge are in the offing. At Biden’s request, the Quad will for the first time hold a summit at the level of heads of government sometime in mid-March. The meeting will be virtual. Pentagon chief, General Lloyd Austin, will visit India and other countries in the Indo-Pacific probably next week. Over the next few months, Washington plans to begin negotiations for a number of technology-based alliances with the idea of reducing dependence on and eventually competing against Chinese technological products and services.

The US issued an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance on March 3, the first formal foreign policy doctrinal statement by the Biden administration. The guidance is blunt in its assessment that China represents the US’s primary strategic challenge and how the US needs to develop collective responses.

In a related speech, Blinken explained the guidance “gives initial direction to our national security agencies so that they can get to work right away while we keep developing a more in-depth national security strategy over the next several months.” He said the guidance lay “out the global landscape as the Biden administration sees it, explains the priorities of our foreign policy – and specifically how we will renew America’s strength to meet the challenges.”

Most of the document’s themes lead ultimately to China. The need to refurbish alliances and partnership is about deterring “Chinese aggression and counterthreats to our collective security.” Blinken laid out why China was “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century...China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system – all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to.”

Both Blinken’s speech and the guidance stress the need for a foreign and trade policy that assists and benefits common Americans. The guidance repeatedly says “the most effective way for America to out-compete” China is investing in restoring the US’s economic lead and democratic structure.

The guidance warns Beijing’s responses are likely to be tough and the US must be ready to respond. “China’s leaders seek unfair advantages, behave aggressively and coercively, and undermine the rules and values at the heart of an open and stable international system. When the Chinese government’s behaviour directly threatens our interests and values, we will answer Beijing’s challenge." Blinken admits the US and China have to collaborate in many areas as well. Whether competing or confronting, with China he said, “the common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.”

The document prioritises the Indo-Pacific. “Our vital national interests compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere”. It speaks of “right-sizing” the US presence in West Asia and mentions Africa. “We will deepen our partnership with India and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” But it argues the US “will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan” even while seeking to ensure it doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists aimed at the US.

Blinken iterated the role of foreign policy in domestic revival. “We will fight for every American job and for the rights, protections, and interests of all American workers.  We will use every tool to stop countries from stealing our intellectual property or manipulating their currencies to get an unfair advantage.” Trade policies must “answer very clearly how they will benefit all Americans, not only those for whom the economy is already working.” He said “distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away.  Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.”

He stressed that the US could not afford to stop playing a global role. “The world does not organize itself.  When the US pulls back, one of two things is likely to happen: either another country tries to take our place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values; or, maybe just as bad, no one steps up, and then we get chaos and all the dangers it creates we need countries to cooperate, now more than ever. Not a single global challenge that affects your lives can be met by any one nation acting alone.”

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Coming of the Techno-Alliances 

The Biden administration is pressing forward for plans, proposed during the election campaign, to set up an alliance of “techno-democracies” to counter China’s hold over global technology. The policy is under discussion in the White House and State Department, but has the backing of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. A State Department official said the alliances would be about “setting the rules and shaping the norms that govern the use of technology” and pushing back against China and other “techno-autocracies.”

The US, like India, has been concerned at the security implications of the Digital Silk Road, supply chain dominance in electronics, and Chinese investment in future areas like artificial intelligence and green technologies. The US believes it has to ensure democracies are at the forefront of such technologies and that they can produce them efficiently and with better safety and security.

The interim strategic guidance also says US policy will be about “shaping emerging technology standards to boost our security, economic competitiveness, and values…we will partner with democratic friends and allies to amplify our collective competitive advantages. We will join with like-minded democracies to develop and defend trusted critical supply chains and technology infrastructure, and to promote pandemic preparedness and clean energy. We will lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements on emerging technologies, space, cyber space, health and biological threats.”

The present global shortage of semiconductors, partly a consequence of Chinese hoarding, has meant these electronic chips are, according to the Wall Street Journal, “at the top of the administration’s list.” The core countries for a semiconductor alliance would probably be Japan, South Korea and Taiwan but might also include the Netherlands, one of the three largest makers of semiconductor fabrication machines. The various reports do not put India at the centre of this policy, partly because of the country’s poor research and development contribution to such technologies and partly because of its perceived reluctance to join explicit anti-China coalitions. But the Biden team sees India as an important place to relocate parts of supply chain production and a software contributor in some technologies.

Like Trump, Biden will pressure allies against buying Huawei’s 5G telecommunications systems. The difference is that Biden also wants to actively promote alternatives. “That might mean investment in cross-border joint ventures with competitors such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung…a common embrace of new technologies such as open radio access networks, or O-RAN, a software-based approach to 5G networks,” says a Washington Post analysis.

Some of the other areas that are seen as ready for such alliances are export controls, technical standards, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and surveillance technology rules.

With some European and Asian governments nervous about joining explicit “techno-alliances” against China, the US will weave such coalitions around existing multilateral structures like the Group of Seven, the Quad and various Atlantic Alliance groupings. “The trick will be keeping the U.S. economy open enough that it continues to draw the world's most talented people, even as officials move to protect America's lead in key technologies.” Some of the alliances will be informal, some may even be unannounced, and the idea will be to keep them flexible.

US commentators say their government needs to embrace a technology-driven but state-supported industrial policy and put aside the standard Washington preference for market solutions. For example, a recent report commissioned by the government and headed by Google’s Eric Schmidt recommends the US government lay out $ 32 billion to support artificial intelligence research and funding by 2026. The report also calls for a “coalition of like-minded” nations to move forward on such technologies.

The US Senate is working on legislation to “outcompete” China that would not only include large investments in US infrastructure, education and innovation but also provide incentives for investments in US allies and partners in Southeast Asia, Europe and including India. Among this raft of legislation is the Endless Frontiers Act and the Chip Act which are about investing in key technologies like semiconductors. Many of these bills have bipartisan support. In February alone, nearly 20 anti-China pieces of legislation were on the US congressional agenda.

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Indo-Pacific Missile Gap

The latest attempt at a pivot to Asia by Washington is a budget request to the US Congress for an additional $ 4.7 billion for 2022 by the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson. This is part of a larger $ 22.8 billion request over the next five years. “The greatest danger we face in the Indo-Pacific region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis China,” Davidson said at a conference recently. “We must convince Beijing that the costs to achieve its objectives by military force are simply too high.” 

One part of the new budget is a buildup of precision-guided intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the western Pacific to counter China’s missile dominance. The US was banned from deploying such missiles under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement but that was scrapped by the Trump administration. But this temporary Chinese missile superiority gives it a six-year window during which, says Davidson, it could be tempted to change the status quo along the “first island chain” running from Okinawa to Taiwan and down to the Philippines. The Pentagon’s own budget analysts are asking questions about some elements of his request, including whether existing destroyer-based missile defences would be as effective as the new land-based Aegis Ashore missiles he wants to use to defend Guam.

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Climate Coalition

On March 5, US special envoy on climate change John Kerry said the US had put together a “small consortium of several countries” prepared to help India achieve its ambitious target of producing about 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030. Kerry said, “It’s a great goal but they need about $ 600 billion to be able to help make that kind of a transition.” In a recognition of India’s new National Hydrogen Mission, Kerry said he was looking at how the US could help in that cutting-edge fuel. “I’ve talked to industrialists in India and government leaders who are focused on the potential of creating India the hydrogen economy as a future,” he  said. Kerry said the US could help India with technology that would make it more competitive against China in the making of solar cells and modules. It could also help in making hydrogen in a manner that was less energy-intensive than it is today. Details about this coalition, however, remain scant.

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US Public and China

A majority of US adults support a more assertive stance on bilateral relations with China across a range of issues, according to a new Pew Research Center survey that collected data in February. Some 48% think limiting China’s power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority for the US, up from 32% in 2018. Roughly nine-in-ten consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner. Americans were particularly concerned about four issues regarding China: cyberattacks, the loss of US jobs, China’s growing military power and its policies on human rights.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans have “cold” feelings toward China, up from 46% who said the same in 2018. While negative feelings toward China have increased among both Republicans and Democrats, the size of the partisan gap has also grown since 2018. Today, 62% of Republicans feel “very cold” toward China – up 31 percentage points since 2018. In comparison, 38% of Democrats report “very cold” feelings, up 21 points over the same period. 

When thinking about economic and trade policies with China, more Americans want the US to get tougher with China (53%) rather than to focus on building a stronger relationship (44%). Americans also support more focus on human rights: 70% say the US should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations.

A little over half have confidence President Biden will be able to deal effectively with China. Still, among six issues tested, this is the one in which Americans have the least confidence in Biden, though there is a huge gap on this between Democrats and Republicans.

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(The views expressed are personal)
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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.