ISSN 2330-717X

Decoding The Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy – Analysis

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By Vivek Mishra and Premesha Saha

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The Biden presidency brought out its Indo-Pacific strategy on 12 February 2022, a day after the Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting in Melbourne, Australia. This is clearly reflective that the Quad is considered the most potential platform for furthering of the US objectives and strategy in the Indo-Pacific. This region has been a dedicated policy focus of various US Presidents like President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘Rebalance’ strategy and the Trump era’s own ‘Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’, therefore, Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy depicts a sustained interest in and priority of the region.

The document potentially coming out at a critical stage in European security restructuring, requiring considerable US’ focus and resources on another flank to deter a Russian threat to Ukraine, underscores the indispensability of a sustained regional strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The document’s assertion that the US ‘will focus on every corner of the region-from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands’ seems intended towards cementing back the eroded assurance of the US support to its allies during the Trump presidency, as well as to insinuate that US’ focus on one flank of this vast region will not be at the cost of ignoring the other.

Not surprisingly, the document clearly lays out the China threat as one of the primary reasons for Washington’s intensifying focus in the region. Broadly, the document does not mince words on its China challenge and the great power competition that the US faces from Beijing in the areas of economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might. Specifically, Australia’s diplomatic tension with China, India’s ongoing border standoff across the LAC, tensions around sovereignty in East and South China seas, and the ever-increasing threat looming over Taiwan are all mentioned under China’s  aggressive, bullying, and coercive strategies. Respect for human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, are equally stressed upon in the document.

At the same time, the need to work with China on issues like climate change, non-proliferation has also been highlighted. The document is cleareyed in its policy of seeking to compete with China along with its partners and allies of the region, while leaving enough room for cooperation with China. While it cannot be denied that most of US’ allies and partners in the region like Philippines, Australia, Japan, India does recognise China’s ‘not so peaceful rise’ and is looking to strengthen cooperation with the US, but at the same time there are countries like Thailand, South Korea, New Zealand, some ASEAN member countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, also the EU who are still adopting the hedging approach and treading along carefully amidst the US-China competition. Therefore, expecting all of its partners to work alongside the US to compete against the Chinese rise, may seem like a far-fetched one. Like the US, these countries would also want a mix of competition and cooperation in their policies towards China.

Strategically, there are two planks that undergird Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy. First, a collectivisation of efforts of all the Indo-Pacific partners is placed at the centre of the effort to change the regional strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific in which China would operate. Thereby, a regional balance of influence along with like-minded partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific, broadening spectrum of manoeuvrability for other Indo-Pacific partners. Secondly, the US seeks to turn the regional balance of influence in the Indo-Pacific in the favour of itself and its partners by aligning its approach with that of its allies and partners in the region. The document outlines a string of countries and regional organisations that the US seeks to engage in building a networked Indo-Pacific security architecture. These include Australia, India, Japan, France, ROK, New Zealand, the UK, France, the EU, the ASEAN and the Pacific Island nations.

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The need to work alongside India, to “support a strong India as a partner in this regional vision” and strengthen this bilateral alliance further in new domains, such as health, space, and cyber space; deepen economic and technology cooperation has been repeatedly harped upon and marked out in the action plan of the strategy. India has been recognised as the leader in South Asia, the net security provider in the Indian Ocean; having substantial influence in the ASEAN; and an important player in the Quad. Given that the US’ focus has been more on the Western Pacific, what kind of a role India expects the US to play alongside in the Western Indian Ocean which is India’s backyard and where the Chinese threat is looming could be outlined as well.

The documents also lay out an action plan carving out the methods and ways that will be implemented to achieve its objectives in the region. The first strategic objective of advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific promises to link three important dimensions through a process of standardisation: norms of governance; consistency with international laws and partnership based on critical and emerging technologies, space and cyber domains. Internally, within the countries of the Indo-Pacific, the free and open aspirations would span sectors like information, expression and governance. In seeking these, the ability of the US to achieve fiscal transparency, exposing corruption and driving reforms across the economies of the Indo-Pacific may prove to be the most challenging.

The second aspect seeks a consistency in the rules-based order across the span of the Indo-Pacific region, with special focus in the South and East China seas and therefore, the need to work with the Congress to fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Maritime Policy Initiative have been laid out. The third area of focus, to advance common approaches to critical and emerging technologies, is in consonance with the Biden administration’s focus in the area both internally and externally. While internationally, critical and emerging technologies have received renewed focus in the recent past, including through the Quad’s reformed objectives, internally the Fast Track Action Subcommittee on critical and emerging technologies under the National Science and Technology Council has recently expanded its mandate in this area.

A part of Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy focuses on addressing existing internal conflicts between the nations that the US seeks to bring together, as well as prevent future bilateral discord between them. By specifying the state of ties between Japan and the ROK, the policy makes clear that prioritising transnational issues over bilateral differences will be key to stitching together a melange of interests in the region.

The Action Plan part of the document particularly mentions the commitment of the US to invest in an “Empowered and Unified ASEAN”. Some ASEAN countries have raised suspicions about the US’ long-term commitment towards the region after Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Therefore, there is a need to review this fractured relationship. From hosting the first ever US-ASEAN Summit in Washington DC to prioritising investing 100$ million in new US-ASEAN initiatives has found a mention in the Action Plan as well.

The Quad members’ cooperation on global health, climate change, critical and emerging technology, infrastructure, cyber, education, and clean energy has been identified as a key element to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific. As such, the stated integration of the Quad into the US Indo-Pacific policy by earmarking common areas of policy pursuit makes Biden’s policy clearer than that of the Trump administration.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific also seeks a ‘bridge’ between the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, particularly with larger roles for the EU and NATO in the Indo-Pacific to seek common objectives. While increasing strategic roles in the Indo-Pacific for the EU and individual countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK is a fact, the timing of NATO’s mention could raise a few eyebrows.

The objective to drive prosperity in the Indo-Pacific rests on two main goals: Framing and strengthening an Indo-Pacific economic framework and closing the infrastructure gap in the region with the help of the G7 partners through the Build Back Better World initiative(B3W). Infrastructure needs in developing Asia are vast; The Asian Development Bank estimates that $26 trillion is needed through 2030. Past US initiatives like the Blue Dot have not been able to make enough substantial contributions, therefore, laying out a few key projects that the B3W, would focus on, especially in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, would have been helpful. The focus on secured global telecommunication, 5G vendor diversification and Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) technology is geared towards keeping suspicious competitors like Huawei out and yet curate a favoured and competitive environment in these areas.

The strength of US Indo-Pacific strategy is as good as its network of security alliances and partnerships, which it calls its ‘single greatest asymmetric strength’. As such, interoperability with its allies as well partners in the region remain central to US vision of Indo-Pacific security. The security of the Taiwan Strait, complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, achieving new gains through AUKUS, advancing Major Defence Partnership with India, investing in the ASEAN, countering terrorism, biological threats and cybersecurity remain predictable key security objectives for the US in the region. At the grand strategy level, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has sought a seamless integration of US domestic objectives with its international goals. Be it the climate crisis, clean-energy technology investments, energy security, health and working with multilateral institutions, all objectives seek a balanced alignment.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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