Changing American Perspective on Quad from Trump to Biden
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF

“Whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”
-Sir Walter Raleigh, 17th Century

It is still too early in the Biden Administration to make any definitive statements about the course of US foreign policy. But two major Quad meetings— the Third Quad Ministerial Meeting (Feb 18) and the Quad Leaders Virtual Summit (March 12)—are unprecedented in terms of heavy diplomatic moves so soon in a new administration. Since the transfer of power from Trump to Biden was unconventionally contentious, there have been conscious efforts to distinguish the Biden office by its officials from the earlier controversial administration. Yet, as politics demands continuity, and more so in foreign policy, it was important to allay fears of disruption with regard to Trump administration’s spearhead on Indo-Pacific and the Quad. It will be pretentious to discount the rise of China in moving mainstream American strategic discourse from Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. Yet the standout factor between the two administrations has been that while the Trump administration pursued a last man standing approach towards China, the Biden administration is more restrained in its outlook on how much the US can unilaterally influence China.

With the 2008 subprime mortgage crises and the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with an ambitious climate agenda, the Obama administration early on sought cooperation with China. However, Obama’s second tenure as President saw rising tensions with an increasingly assertive China- 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff involving Philippines, 2013 China’s Declaration of ADIZ in East China Sea, 2014 China’s massive dredging operations to build artificial islands around seven reefs in South China Sea, 2016 China’s blatant rejection of ICJ tribunal ruling on the South China Sea arbitration with Philippines that concluded China's historic rights claims inside the "nine-dash line" have no lawful effect, 2016 China-Taiwan tensions over elections etc. In a 2014 landmark indictment of five Chinese military members, the US Department of Justice would allege that the Chinese military targeted a number of America’s top manufacturers over an eight-year period from 2006 through early 2014. However, Obama’s much touted rebalance to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations proved to be unsuccessful in changing anything on ground.

While the US media and intelligentsia today seek to disown and deem the Trump administration to a dark corner of US history, the Trump administration was remarkable in bringing credibility to US policy in Asia despite the deal-making and haphazard diplomacy. Through numerous official declarations and acts spanning multiple US government departments during the four-year tenure, the region was convinced that US domestic discourse on China had changed and changed for the long term. Ironically, the blunt unilateralism encouraged regional confidence that the US would deal with China independently to reassert itself. Beginning with the National Security Strategy in 2017, there was the BUILD Act in 2018 (that created the US International Development Finance Corporation) followed with the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report in 2019. These were interspersed with many other acts covering Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc. and domestic initiatives such as Department of Justice’ China Initiative to disrupt Chinese covert activities in the US. Even the US Pacific Command was renamed as the US Indo-Pacific Command.

Undeniably, trade deficit and tariffs war dominated the US- China discourse owing to Trumps’ personal enchantment with tariffs. While the Phase One deal emerged as a crucial victory with extensive enforcement clauses, many other contentious issues involving US economic engagement with China were deferred for a later date. The Biden Administration hasn’t made trade deficit (at least yet) a centrepiece of their China policy. There has instead been a renewed emphasis on human rights issues and climate change that were ignored by the Trump administration. As mentioned in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (issued in early March), the Biden administration hasn’t been shy of suggesting cooperation with China. “We will conduct practical, results-oriented diplomacy with Beijing and work to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation1”. The haphazard focus on technology by the earlier administration involving largely unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies has now been smoothened into cooperative multilateral/ regional frameworks.

Most marked difference between the two administrations has been the degree of convergence they have sought with the allies/ partners. Though the Trump officials managed to bring forth an unchallenged domestic consensus on China, they were not much focussed on outlining a process how they would incorporate the challenges China posed to others. With the America-first approach, they were brusquely undiplomatic into coercing even allies on trade issues or increasing defence contribution. The Biden administration on the other hand, has sought to coalesce the unilateral US narrative on China into an international objection against China. The Biden officials have gotten all the initial diplomatic optics right like ensuring President Biden spoke to leaders from Quad member countries before he spoke to Xi Jinping, meeting allies before they engaged with Chinese officials etc. This higher degree of convergence with allies is also possible because of the increased support from them now. After the initial senior officials Quad meeting in November 2017, the 2018 Wuhan Summit and Prime Minister Modi’s Shangri La speech highlighting inclusivity, toned down expectations. From thereon, US ceded space and ASEAN centrality thus began to find its way to US individual statements after Quad meetings.

In 2020, the pandemic that originated in China and unusual Chinese aggression involving each of the Quad member countries—record Chinese incursions into waters around Senkaku islands, a disastrous trade war between Australia and China and a fatal standoff with India on the border—brought renewed validation for Quad. Further, Europe came on board with France, Germany (and now UK) bringing out official papers outlining their Indo-Pacific strategies that strengthened the momentum into holding China accountable. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative passed in December 2020 gave the Pentagon the go ahead to invest more efforts into US and regional member capabilities across the spectrum into strengthening US regional architecture. But both the Trump and Biden administrations have stated that they want Quad to be more than an anti-China alliance. The geographical distances, political hostilities, economic necessities, and the cultural maze in the region do not allow for an adversary centred military grouping such as the NATO. There is also continuity in terms of the agenda spanning maritime security, cyber security, counterterrorism, to technology, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief etc.

While there is limited support for a China-led order in Asia, there is also a declining appetite to deal with US machinations and parochialism among regional countries. The Quad Leaders’ Virtual Summit set up three working groups on vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, and climate change. Yet there is a gap for a more encompassing geo-economic approach that sets up new rules for regional economic, finance and trade engagement. The Quad as a whole has thrown a life jacket to the western liberal order, but efforts will have to be made to bring a widespread regional consensus. Under Trump, a risky gamble was made to shun arms control agreements into coaxing Russia to bring China on board. That did not turn out successful. In fact, Russian support whether willingly or unwillingly sought will be crucial to the Indo-Pacific regional order. Iran, Afghanistan, and other destabilizing regional factors in Middle East and Africa, while not mainstream on the Quad agenda today, will also have to be dealt with someday.

  1. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
6 + 12 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us