For Joe Biden like much of the world, the post-Trump era is fraught with challenges, ranging from increasing great power rivalry, economic uncertainty, insecure allies and domestic challenges – nowhere is this more evident than in Australia’s own region, and no amount of a ‘return’ to pre-Trump policy will change this.
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At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the "end of history" was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
While the nation's geographic isolation, encapsulated by the 'tyranny of distance', has provided Australia with a degree of protection from the major, epoch-defining and empire ending conflagrations of the 20th century, the 21st century's great power rivalry hits far closer to home.
Far from the promise of the "end of history", across the globe the US-led liberal-democratic and capitalist economic, political and strategic order is under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest, the impact of sustained economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geostrategic competition between the world’s great powers.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of “closer collaboration and economic integration”, grasp at the lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interests.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia’s position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order, has left the nation at a unique and troubling crossroads, particularly as its two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends – the US and the UK – appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
Meanwhile, the turbulent nature of the ongoing political turmoil sweeping the US, both sides of the political spectrum, within the US and increasingly around the world, have taken up arms against one another, as is evidenced by mounting social, economic and political tensions in the aftermath of the 2016 and 2020 elections, respectively.
Each of these factors combined form part of an intricate and complex mosaic of challenges facing the incoming Biden/Harris administration and will play a pivotal role in the way in which the United States and its allies seek to navigate the new normal in an era of increased disruption.
While the outgoing-President has largely stood true to his word; moving to hold communist China more accountable for the economic manipulations and its bold strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, and seeking to make long dependent US allies across Europe more accountable and invested in their collective security.
These actions have driven a wedge between the US and many formerly allied capitals, with many a strategic, political and economic commentator attributing Trump's transactional approach to alliances to the decline of the post-Second World War order and the emboldening of rival powers, including China and a seemingly resurgent Russia.
Prepare for the multipolar world
For Hadrien Saperstein, a researcher at the Asia Centre think tank in Paris, no amount of resurgent US commitment to the post-Second World War order is going to account for the rapid changes sweeping the region and the broader global power dynamics, particularly for middle powers like Australia who are dependent upon the strategic stability provided by the US.
"In this new strategic environment, great and middle-power countries in the Asia-Pacific region will likely augment the total number and intensity of tit-for-tat and/or grey-zone operations to pursue political, strategic and operational ends without actually resorting to open conflict," Saperstein explains.
Expanding on these points, Saperstein details further shifts in the approach many nations will take toward the Biden Administration's approach to geo-strategic affairs, "With a surging number and intensity of tit-for-tat and grey-zone operations, small-to-middle powers in the region – especially in south-east Asia – will start the process of reassessing whether their overall security relationship with the United States is sufficient to maintain their own security priorities.
"As a result of this reassessment, some of those small-to-middle-powers will adopt a 'dual policy' of publicly showing the United States that they remain committed to standing security arrangements while the US prioritises its domestic issues, but also simultaneously aggressively hedging in private to better position themselves with other states.
"Similar to Australia, south-east Asian states will be divided on the best way to approach the relative strategic shift. While some will look cautiously outside of the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. the European Union, France, the UK and India), others will be forced to look at actors closer to home inside the region (e.g. China and Japan)."
These shifting relationships are particularly important for the region's rising powers, like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, all of whom were to varying degrees overlooked or alienated during the Obama/Biden years, forcing the hands of many regional leaders to focus on closer relationships with Beijing, undermining the regional balance of power.
Saperstein explains, "Representing the latter group, Thailand, which sought to balance China through its historical friendship with the United States, will be put in a particularly difficult corner, as the multifaceted Chinese political and economic charm offensives through its 'good neighbour-style foreign policy' will face no serious counterweight.
"Thailand's growing foreign policy imbalance between China and the United States has only accelerated further during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, after China donated 1.3 million surgical face masks, 70,000 N95 face masks, 150,000 COVID-19 test kits and 70,000 personal protective equipment suits to support Thailand’s fight against the virus."
But what about multilaturalism?
Many commentators have frequently spruiked the Biden's election as a 'return of the United States' and 'sanity' when it comes to international relations and the post-War order, often overlooked precedent throughout the Obama years, combined with domestic challenges serve to undermine the legitimacy of the Biden administration's foreign policy agenda.
Saperstein explains, "Some have forecast that Joe Biden’s multilateral approach will help rescue the Trump administration’s failed foreign policy approach across the Asia-Pacific region (notably in south-east Asia) and could reverse such a strategic shift.
"One of the tenets described in this return to a multilateral approach is the US (re)joining a host of international organisations and programs, including the World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative, which aims to provide 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of next year to underdeveloped countries.
"However, to the extent that US success within international organisations and with partners is undergirded by US soft power, Biden’s influence will be gravely weakened with each passing domestic crisis. Whereas in the past American soft power was systematically a strength towards aggrandising the United States’ authority abroad, it will now mostly have the reverse effect.
"Therefore, the Biden administration’s projected 'no-frills' or 'business almost as usual' approach (echoing the Obama-Clinton foreign policy era) is likely to be incompatible with a new international environment and this strategic shift.
"Consequently, in the coming years, the US government will heedlessly continue the process of militarising its foreign policy in an attempt to mitigate the diplomatic failure to reverse the slow-moving strategic shift that will occur in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The inability to project power beyond militarised means, elicited by intermittent domestic crises, will make allies and partners far less confident in the depth and durability of the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The likely result will be that the United States is once again long on promises, but short on delivery."
Australia is defined by its economic, political and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.