US President Joe Biden has sought to restore American leadership globally and defend the US-led liberal international order. His administration emphasizes democratic values and reengages with democratic allies and partners to rival China. His proposal to convene a “Summit for Democracy” exemplifies his agenda.
The Biden administration’s foreign policy has arisen from a sense of crisis in democracy at home and abroad. The previous U.S. administration under Donald Trump polarized the country politically and economically, and the January 6 assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters in 2021 exacerbated such cleavages. As such, President Biden’s top priority is to protect democracy at home.
At the same time, China continues to pose a challenge to the existing liberal international order. The current COVID-19 pandemic has allowed Chinese leaders to tighten control over the population and made them believe their authoritarian system was more capable of handling the pandemic than democracies. China’s growing confidence was also seen in provocative comments made by the top Chinese diplomat, the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, Yang Jiechi, at the US-China talks in Alaska in March, when he said: “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its image and to stop advancing its democracy in the rest of the world.” He also said to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
Against this backdrop, the Biden administration has taken a multilateral approach. In the Indo-Pacific, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, is the main forum between four democracies, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The first Quad meeting was convened in New York during the Trump administration in September 2019. President Biden has continued to endorse the framework and participated in the first online Quad summit with top leaders in March.
In Europe, President Biden reassured NATO about the US’ commitment during his first foreign trip to Brussels amid the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden wrote an op-ed article about his trip to Europe for the Washington Post on June 5 , describing it as “demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” He also stated that the United States and Europe “will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st century rules around trade and technology.”Concerted efforts between the United States and major democracies will therefore be critical for the maintenance of the liberal international order.
However, the Biden administration’s emphasis on democracy cannot exclude options to cooperate with non-democracies and countries where democratic principles have been eroded. For example, a number of countries in Southeast Asia are participants and beneficiaries of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while at the same time they are also part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), promoted by Japan and the United States. If the Biden administration overly stresses democratic values, it might alienate essential partners such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The United States and major democratic countries must therefore leave room for issue-based cooperation with non-democratic countries because global issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change require cooperation with countries all over the world.
In light of this, the Biden administration and other major democracies in the region are likely to face complex tasks along the way. First, the top priority is to put an end to the COVID-19 pandemic as promptly as possible to regain the trust of democratic institutions vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes. Here, COVID-19 can be a game-changer. The first country to overcome the pandemic will likely gain political leverage over other countries and may rewrite the rules of the game in international politics.
Second, the FOIP remains an initiative and is not backed by an institution. The Quad is another venue for leaders’ summits at this moment. How these initiatives are institutionalized will determine the fate of Biden’s multilateral engagement in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Because the Biden administration seeks to pursue a “foreign policy for the middle class” in the United States, it is difficult for him to prioritize his international agenda over domestic issues. Moreover, the US’ return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Overall, finding a realistic way to strengthen democratic institutions in the region is a pressing task for the Biden administration.
Lastly, China is now more confident in assuming a leading role in the region — and beyond — with its experience in containing the COVID-19 pandemic faster than other countries. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has strong support from the Chinese people, and its grip on power is likely to remain strong for the foreseeable future. In Alaska, Yang Jiechi reiterated that “If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.” As the CCP will hold its 20th Party Congress in the fall of 2022, Chinese leaders are more likely to prioritize domestic politics over international cooperation this year. The United States and its democratic allies and partners must strike a delicate balance between strengthening the current liberal international order and soliciting cooperation from China without pressuring it too hard.
 “How it happened: Transcript of the US-China opening remarks in Alaska,” NIKKEI Asia, March 19,2021.
 Joe Biden, “My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2021.
 “How it happened: Transcript of the US-China opening remarks in Alaska.”
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.