By Paul Heer*
The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released in February 2022, affirms that the United States will work through ‘a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions’ to foster ‘the collective capacity’ of the region to confront 21st century challenges. To that end, Washington has played a leading role in promoting multilateral institutions and shared interests in the region.
These efforts include the Quad — a dialogue process that combines Japan, Australia, India and the United States — and AUKUS — a security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the economic realm, Washington has partnered with multiple countries in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), as a substitute for US membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The Biden administration also includes the Indo-Pacific in the Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, an infrastructure investment program launched by the G7.
US-led initiatives also include the US–Pacific Partnership with multiple South Pacific Island countries and the complementary ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ initiative (PBP) launched in June 2022 with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom. These groups overlap with the pre-existing network of formal US allies in the region and Washington’s longstanding participation in ASEAN-centered institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
Though this would appear to be an embarrassment of riches in terms of US multilateral engagement in the region, several underlying issues have tempered the impact of Washington’s efforts and pose challenges going forward.
While most of the Indo-Pacific is eager for US engagement and commitment, fault lines persist on what to prioritise in the regional agenda. Many countries perceive the US focus on traditional security issues to be at the expense of economic concerns and climate change. Washington has ramped up its attention to the latter issues, but diverging views on what is most important will continue to hamper robust cooperation. So will limits on the resources that the United States can bring to bear.
Diverging priorities also reflect varying levels of readiness to sign on to what some perceive as an overly confrontational US approach to dealing with China. Many leaders and strategic thinkers in the region have expressed their countries’ unwillingness to choose sides between the United States and China. Washington has repeatedly insisted that it will impose no such choice on its partners, but some of its diplomacy and rhetoric suggest a desire for other countries to align with the United States.
Some US partners are also concerned about how the various US initiatives fit together. ASEAN countries have long welcomed Washington’s embrace of ‘ASEAN centrality’ in regional multilateralism. But ASEAN’s exclusion from the Quad and AUKUS has raised questions about whether US attention is being diverted away from Southeast Asia’s priorities in dealing with China and other regional issues.
The Quad appears to be gaining momentum, but its effectiveness will continue to be subject to a lagging consensus on what its focus should be — both in terms of traditional versus non-traditional security issues and on how confrontational the group should be towards China. The Quad may also be hindered by the varying levels of confidence its members have in each other.
Overall regional confidence in the United States itself is also a lingering issue. Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 undermined faith in its commitment to the region and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is viewed by many as a somewhat meagre alternative. Much of the Indo-Pacific anticipates that US domestic politics will constrain Washington’s reliability in the region for the foreseeable future.
The elephant in the room is China, which is excluded from the United States’ multilateral initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. Washington and its key partners routinely minimise any explicit mention of China in their multilateral diplomacy, but no one doubts that the Quad, AUKUS, IPEF, B3W and ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ have that aim.
Washington’s multilateral diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific frequently emphasises the importance of ‘inclusiveness’ in the pursuit of a region that is ‘free and open’, peaceful and prosperous. But the more the United States avoids including China in its regional initiatives, the more obvious it is that those efforts are aimed at excluding and targeting Beijing.
When China is addressed in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the National Security Strategy, it is framed in terms of the central threat it poses to openness, security and prosperity in the region. There appears to be little consideration of the possibility that Beijing might share some of its neighbours’ goals or other elements of Washington’s regional agenda. US strategy focusses almost exclusively on mobilising US allies and partners, implicitly against China. Even the list of ‘prospective members’ in the US-Pacific Partnership does not include Beijing.
The United States and China, as the two most powerful countries in the world, must find ways to cooperate on key global issues for the benefit of humanity. This should apply within the Indo-Pacific as well, with both countries playing key roles in regional multilateralism in a shared pursuit of stability, prosperity, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.
There is no doubt that cooperation would be complicated, given the inevitable rivalry and strategic mistrust between Beijing and Washington. But the alternative of a region divided between hostile camps would almost certainly be worse. Accordingly, the United States should consider an approach to Indo-Pacific regional security that works with China rather than exclusively against it.
*About the author: Paul Heer is Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum