Earlier this month, the Biden administration released its new Indo-Pacific Strategy which laid out Washington’s objectives in the region, America’s role in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, building connectivity across the region and beyond, pushing for a prosperous region, augmenting the region’s security, and building regional resilience to deal with a range of transnational threats and challenges. A fact sheet on the strategy said that the administration’s vision is to “more firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen the region in the process” while engaging in “sustained and creative collaboration with allies, partners, and institutions, within the region and beyond it.” In a background press briefing on the strategy, senior administration officials stated that the strategy has two key goals: “to strengthen the US role in the region;” and “to build the collective capacity to rise to 21st century challenges and seize opportunities, whether that has to do with climate, with PRC behavior, or preparing for the next pandemic and recovering from this one.”
The strategy rightly placed the United States’ attention on a number of significant challenges that the Indo-Pacific region is faced with, particularly those posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC’s use of diplomatic, military, and technological prowess to establish or nurture its own sphere of influence and emerge as the “world’s most influential power” is noted. The strategy adds that while China’s aggressiveness is not limited to the Indo-Pacific region and is seen across the globe, “it is more acute in the Indo-Pacific” as seen in the trade and economic coercion against Australia, aggression against India across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the military coercive tactics against Taiwan or the bullying behavior against neighbors in the East and South China Sea, which have had to bear the brunt of “the PRC’s harmful behavior. ” In addition, the strategy highlights the gross violation of human rights and international law including freedom of navigation.
In recognition of these threats and challenges, the fact sheet insists that the US will use “all instruments of power to deter aggression and to counter coercion” by a series of steps including “advancing integrated deterrence, deepening cooperation and enhancing interoperability with allies and partners, maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, innovating to operate in rapidly evolving threat environments, including space, cyberspace, and critical- and emerging-technology areas, strengthening extended deterrence and coordination with our ROK and Japanese allies and pursuing the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, continuing to deliver on AUKUS, expanding U.S. Coast Guard presence and cooperation against other transnational threats and working with Congress to fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Maritime Security Initiative.”
The strategy also prioritizes the United States’ “network of security alliances and partnerships” with whom the U.S. intends to “develop and deploy advanced warfighting capabilities.”
India finds prominent space in this context. Washington “will continue to build a strategic partnership in which the United States and India work together and through regional groupings to promote stability in South Asia” and “steadily advance our Major Defense Partnership with India and support its role as a net security provider.” The strategy also identified India as “a like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean” … “a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development.” The strategy’s emphasis on India as central to the Quad is noteworthy, considering that India’s is often seen as the weakest link among the Quad partners.
Emphasizing the importance of India, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, in a telephone press conference, said that “India is more than just a partner. We work more closely with India on daily basis than any country in the region.” Lu, who was part of the U.S. delegation at the Quad foreign ministers meeting, said that Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had “an open and honest conversation” which was indicative of the “close relationship we have with one another…. And we talk about every issue, including the tough ones.”
Although the documents detail the logic of U.S. strategy and a number of challenges, mostly emanating from China, there are critics who believe that Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is not focused enough on addressing the China threat. Craig Singleton, analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the strategy has so many similarities with the Obama and Trump efforts on Indo-Pacific that the “US will continue to muddle along in the region. This plan lacks specificity, lacks detail, and there are major gaps in terms of strengthening America’s geoeconomic position in Asia.”
Senior officials during their background briefing were clear that the Indo-Pacific Strategy was not just a China strategy.
The strategy does appear to recognize this “not just China” approach by focusing regional needs, such as those of the countries in Southeast Asia. The strategy highlights ASEAN centrality and “support[s] ASEAN in its efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges,” which is a considered an improvement from the Trump administration’s efforts at “provoke[ing] ASEAN to confront China.” Similarly, the strategy acknowledges the important role of France as well as “the strategic value of an increasing regional role for the European Union (EU).” Thus, instead of abandoning Europe for the Indo-Pacific, the effort appears to be an effort to integrate Europe into the Indo-Pacific, as other analysts have pointed out.
In sum, the new Indo-Pacific strategy appears to be taking regional concerns more seriously, while also re-emphasizing both the importance of American interests in the region and Washington’s recognition of the need for partners in pursuing these interests.