IScann in Perspective with Hsiao-pin Yu, IScann Group, Senior Advisor


The Indopacific region has long been a hotly contested region in the struggle between great powers. The importance of the Indopacific was highlighted by the Obama administration and reflected in their commitment to a “Pacific Pivot”, designed to redirect US resources towards an all too often neglected element of their foreign policy. However, despite the employment of strong rhetoric, this policy ultimately did little to counter the growing influence of an increasingly confident and assertive China.

Before Donald Trump’s presidency, the USA, though still a global superpower, did not put enough resources (political, economic or military) and effort into the contest with China for influence in the geopolitical region of the Indopacific. This was at the time partly due to the war in Iraq in Afghanistan. Due to the lack of US presence, many of the region’s countries felt China’s power of influence more directly and were subject to China’s increasingly assertive decision-making approach. Cambodia – economic coercion, chained them up with economic dependence

However, the Trump administration’s trade war on China and the heavy-handed measures taken against China regarding Hong Kong, South China Sea, Taiwan, and the WHO surprised regional countries. It presented them with another option or opportunity for those who felt dominated by China over the years.

Excited, many countries in the Indopacific region welcomed the changes and were encouraged to take more assertive stances against China’s pressure. Still, they knew that Trump was not a typical political figure and his actions deviated from long-standing, traditional US policies. Once Trump was out of office, they suspected that the pendulum would most likely swing back and things would “revert to the mean.”

The swinging pendulum

Regional countries are now waiting cautiously and anxiously to see how the situation will unfold with Joe Biden’s presidency. China, on the other hand, hopes that with Trump out of office they can begin to mend its relationship with the US, remove that competition of influence, and reassert its dominating influence in the region.

It is predicted that Biden will likely return to the policy of “engaging China” (although perhaps with a modified new term and altered content) on a limited basis, moving forward very cautiously. This slow navigation of a relationship with China is crucial, after all, COVID-19 is still far from under control in the US, with many Americans continuing to blame China for the pandemic. Not to mention the fact that Trump’s trade war on China also struck a chord with a large portion of the domestic population. That being said, it highly likely that Biden can effectively use the precedents that Trump set to his advantage for the future contest of influence and negotiations with China.

The military’s impact

One area that looks to be substantially difficult to revert to the pre-Trump era is the presence and increased activities and involvements of the US military in the Indopacific region.

The US military is no doubt one of the most powerful in the world, some would say the most. After the Cold War, the great military establishment lost its great power competitor in the Soviet Union. Budgets got cut, fleets downsized, and they fought opponents like Iraq, Yugoslavia, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. Now though, there is the next great power competitor – China. The venerable and formidable 7th Fleet and the Pacific Command that once saved most of Asia from the Japanese Empire can once again deter and prevent a regional power from disrupting the peace and stability of its area of responsibility.

Great power opponents are, in a way, easier to plan and prepare against than the insurgents, and the process and execution of it more rewarding and satisfying. Not to mention the resources it can help justify spending. After the long and frustrating operations in the Middle East, and all the talks about a rising China versus a declining America, there’s too much at stake for the US military not to continue its more assertive military presence in the region.

National security policies

When it comes to national security policies between the Indopacific region and the US it will largely vary from country to country. However, Taiwan, in particular, will be the most anxious and stands to lose the most if Biden swings back too much. The region as a whole will be watching cautiously to see if things revert to the norm.

The pandemic brought with it a whole host of unpredictable elements for countries across the globe, however, China was one of the few that was able to contain the pandemic quickly and put its economy back to track. If the US-China trade war comes to a resolution under Biden, most countries facing the challenge of post-pandemic recovery may find China a critical piece and example to look to for their economic recovery effort.

Furthermore, once the pandemic is over and people look up to their leaders for a quick recovery to make up for their loss during the year-long depression, China will be an irresistible partner for most, if not all, countries in the region. As long as China does not behave overly aggressively to antagonize the US and regional countries, it is highly likely that the post-pandemic economic recovery needs may outweigh the short-term national security concerns for many countries.

Despite the short-term reassurances that China may bring, I think most countries would hope to see the more assertive and involved US military engagement strategy in the region continue under the incoming Biden administration. It would act as a counter-balance to the rapid Chinese military expansion and prevent the heavy-handed influence that China was once able to hold over the countries of the Indopacific region. In that regard, it is imperative that Biden’s administration sufficiently understands the concerns of the region and approaches slowly, hopefully not entirely disregarding Trump’s stance on the matter, but in fact learning from it and incorporating elements into his own approach.

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