U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration are breaking out onto Asia's diplomatic stage in a big way, beginning with the first-ever leaders' meeting of the "Quad" (the United States, Japan, Australia and India) last Friday and followed by back-to-back foreign and defense minister meetings ("two-plus-two") this week in Tokyo and Seoul featuring Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Never have two-plus-twos been arranged so early in a new administration, and they were not held even once during the Trump administration with South Korea.
The purpose of these mathematical combinations is clear. As State Department spokesman Ned Price described, they are "to demonstrate in both word and deed" how the Biden administration believes that its alliances and partnerships are "a core source of strength" by which they can meet challenges collectively and create opportunities. Additionally, by making their first overseas trip to Asia, Blinken and Austin are signaling the importance they attach to the Indo-Pacific region because it offers the most opportunity for the United States and is home to its greatest challenge, China. Biden's approach can also benefit America's partners in Asia, but it will take effort by everyone, and even then a lack of complete unity will often mean that smaller bilateral and trilateral action is needed.
The Biden administration emphasizes the important connection between foreign and domestic policy, that the United States cannot be an effective world leader unless it is strong at home, and that its foreign policy priorities should align with the needs of America's middle class. The just completed Quad summit is a good example of this thinking in practice, because nothing has impacted average Americans more negatively in recent years than the COVID-19 pandemic. The four nations' decision to jointly manufacture and distribute up to 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine throughout Asia will help the world overcome the pandemic more quickly, which in turn protects American lives and contributes to faster economic recovery.
Some suggest cynically that the Quad's generosity is designed to counter China's vaccine diplomacy, but while partially true there is more to it. The Quad's newly established working groups on vaccines, climate change, and critical technologies all connect to domestic priorities and are a way to act internationally in support of shared interests. While the four partners do share concerns about China's use of economic and military coercion and will at times take coordinated steps to balance against or contain China, they also have competing political and private-sector interests that prevent a consistent united front. The allies do not have to adopt the same China policies, but complementary tactics on everything from supply chains to freedom of navigation will make a stronger impression on China and promote stability.
These different diplomatic combinations represent something like a hybrid engine in an automobile that can use gasoline power when the electric batteries are weak. While the United Nations or the Group of 20 can be effective multilateral institutions for their global reach and legitimacy, they are weak when paralyzed by conflicting interests. Strengthening the Quad can be a useful alternative for the partners to have a bigger impact in Asia than any one or two countries can do on their own. The vaccine project is one example, and another might be helping to expand the use of open architecture 5G telecommunication networks that offer an alternative to China's Huawei, among other possible regional initiatives.
But even a small group of "like-minded" countries will disagree on issues like export controls, environmental policies, or data governance, and so the two-plus-two bilateral framework is the ultimate "gas engine" that can get an alliance moving on important (but possibly contentious) defense, trade, and foreign policy issues. What matters to Biden is making progress by whatever means necessary. Succeeding for the American people is the best way to discredit the previous approach of Donald Trump and help stabilize American politics. The Biden team believes that cooperation with Asian partners in support of shared interests is the best strategy.
(James L. Schoff is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program and a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2010 to 2012 under the Obama administration.)