In its aim to expand its influence, the US is mindful of the threats posed by China and Russia while incorporating important partners such as India in its Indo-Pacific strategy
Early this month, the United States President, Joe Biden, outlined his Indo-Pacific strategy amidst the geopolitical shifts taking place in the region. This greatly represented the region’s importance to US security and prosperity. While the document depicts a good grasp of the complexities, challenges, and opportunities involved in the region, and how the US seeks to safeguard its interests while maintaining the rules-based order, it is interesting to note that both China and India figure prominently in the document. Moreover, with the two Asian powerhouses having diverging views towards the established order, it will not only be important to underscore how the Biden administration seeks to incorporate them into the equation, but also to assess the degree of continuity and change in comparison to the Trump administration’s strategy, which was declassified in the waning days of his presidency. Furthermore, given the complex geopolitical issues unfolding in Eastern Europe, can (or should) the US operationalise such a strategy?
China continues to draw much attention in the Indo-Pacific given its significant increase in material capabilities and the expansion of its assertive activities from Australia, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea to the Line of Actual Control with India. These factors present a significant challenge to the stability of the rules-based order. Moreover, China is also seen to challenge the US interest and influence in the region, as both countries are locked in a power competition that will inevitably intensify as their material capabilities will continue to grow.
China continues to draw much attention in the Indo-Pacific given its significant increase in material capabilities and the expansion of its assertive activities from Australia, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea to the Line of Actual Control with India.
Given the stakes involved in the Indo-Pacific, it is inevitable for China to figure prominently in Washington’s regional strategy. However, what needs attention is the manner in which the US seeks to address the China challenge under Biden’s leadership. While the document emphasises China’s desire to solidify its “sphere of influence” in the Indo-Pacific and grow into the “world’s most influential power”, Biden’s strategy seeks to limit China’s assertive behaviour by incorporating a multilateral approach with like-minded partners to strengthen existing norms, rules, and institutions in the region, rather than confronting it directly through approaches that centre on realpolitik.
Biden’s largely normative and multilateral approach aims to compel China to play by the rules without greatly provoking a major stand-off between the two powers. The strategy highlights how changing China is not the objective, but rather, to “shape the strategic environment in which it operates”. A restrained and managed response to China’s assertion also reflects Biden’s willingness to engage with Beijing in several other non-traditional security issues such as climate change, terrorism, and non-proliferation. The tone of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy vis-à-vis China has some important differences and variations from Trump’s version.
While both administrations recognise the significant obstacles posed by China, Trump’s strategy does not shy away from calling out China’s authoritarian system of governance and its interest to dominate the international economic system through its unfair practices and “exploit vacuums” created from the dissolution of US alliances and partnerships. In addition, while Biden’s strategy emphasises greatly on cooperating with partners and allies to ground the international system in shared values to create a normative balance to China’s increasingly assertive practices, Trump sought to engage with allies and partners to balance and deter China’s growing military power by improving levels interoperability, information-sharing, capacity-building, and preparedness “across the spectrum of conflict”. Interestingly, Trump’s Indo-Pacific vision was also open to cooperating with China, but only when it is “beneficial” to US interest.
A restrained and managed response to China’s assertion also reflects Biden’s willingness to engage with Beijing in several other non-traditional security issues such as climate change, terrorism, and non-proliferation.
Both administrations understand the challenges brought by a powerful China in the Indo-Pacific. While both strategies utilise hard and soft approaches, the ratio of the balance proves to be interesting. While Biden puts a significant premium on the normative aspect of the power competition, he does generally point to the importance of reinforcing deterrence amongst allies and partners against any form of military aggression. On the other hand, Trump paints a clear picture of the need to enhance the level of military cooperation to limit China’s increasingly worrying assertive activities throughout the geographic space. However, Trump also emphasises the need to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open.
With China consistently securing its place as a critical element in the US Indo-Pacific strategy, it is inevitable for India to maintain an approximately equal position. Having a vast population, a large economy, and a robust military, India has cemented its position as a major Indo-Pacific power and one of the few countries in the region that can effectively stand up to China. In addition, its adherence to the rules-based order and its willingness to rise within the foundations of this order, makes it a pivotal and natural partner of the US. Moreover, India’s strong relations with key US allies such as Japan, Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom adds an important component to the India-US partnership. In the same vein, the partnership also adds stimulus to the Quad framework.
In addition, India’s relations with China continue to degrade due to escalating border tensions and the latter’s attempt to project power and influence in the Indian Ocean at New Delhi’s expense. Given their shared values and concerns, India and the US complement each other’s roles and positions in the Indo-Pacific. Since President Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy, India’s status as an important like-minded partner in the continent continues to gain momentum as it rises in material capability. Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy serves as a continuation in this aspect.
Biden’s strategy seeks to bolster India’s position as a security provider in the region and a rising power with a strong diplomatic presence not only in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Pacific.
The document not only highlights India’s importance to the stability of the Indo-Pacific, but also acknowledges and supports its leadership and rise. Biden’s strategy seeks to bolster India’s position as a security provider in the region and a rising power with a strong diplomatic presence not only in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Pacific. Similarly, Trump’s strategy incorporated a similar level of accommodation for India’s rise; however, his version explicitly incorporated India in a power equation to “counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern”. While this level of competitiveness is toned down in Biden’s regional framework, the significance of the US-China power competition remains intact in both strategies.
While Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy illustrates the increasing relevance of the region to US foreign and security policy, the challenge lies in maintaining consistency to materialise such a vision. The unfolding situation in Eastern Europe, and the role of Russia in this dynamic has greatly redirected Washington’s attention from the Indo-Pacific. History has shown how a preoccupied US always serves as an opportunity for China to solidify its sphere of influence and act more assertively throughout the region. Moreover, it will be important for the US to gauge the level of threat posed by Russia and China to its interests. While Russia has a formidable military, China’s economic size, population, and defence budget significantly outweighs its capacity to project power. Moreover, given China’s global ambitions, the stakes are much higher for Washington. If the US aims to enhance its position and influence in the Indo-Pacific, it cannot afford to compromise its level of consistency, as it will continue to be more challenging given China’s growth trajectory and degree of influence in the highly asymmetric region.
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Don McLain Gill is a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst author and lecturer at the Department of International Studies De La Salle University (DLSU).Read More +