The Biden administration released its first Indo-Pacific Strategy report in early February, after extensive coordination with all stakeholders involved, including both parties in Congress, federal executive departments and the country’s allies and partners. The full coordination shows that Biden attaches great importance to the document and partly explains why it came later than expected.
At just 19 pages, the document is much shorter and more condensed than the Trump version published in 2019, which had 64 pages. But it doesn’t fall short of any elements regarding the U.S. engagement history, major goals and action plans in the region. It first looks back at the country’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific, analyzes the economic significance and strategic challenges of the region and concludes that continuing to make big investments in the region is indispensable. Then it outlines five primary objectives:
• Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific
• Build connections within and beyond the region
• Drive regional prosperity
• Bolster Indo-Pacific security
• Build regional resilience to transnational threats.
In general, the major goal of the strategy is to defend the freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific, which is in line with the traditional U.S. open-door policy and open access to the global commons. It aims to expand sustained cooperation with allies and regional institutions in economy, security and diplomacy through collective efforts.
The document ends with an action plan to be implemented in the next 12 to 24 months. The 10 core lines are listed as follows:
1. Drive new resources to the Indo-Pacific, including opening new embassies and consulates in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and expand the U.S. Coast Guard presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands;
2. Launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in early 2022;
3. Reinforce military deterrence, in particular through the AUKUS partnership;
4. Strengthen an empowered and unified ASEAN;
5. Support India’s continued regional leadership and recognize India as a like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean;
6. Deliver on the Quad and make it play a leading regional role;
7. Expand U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation;
8. Partner to build resilience in the Pacific islands;
9. Support good government and accountability;
10. Promote secure and trustworthy digital infrastructure.
The strategy features clearer objectives and increased feasibility in more fields. In addition to its emphasis on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — the core of Trump’s version — it adds four more objectives. With climate change and infrastructure involved, it will strike a chord with Indo-Pacific countries. In contrast, the Trump administration emphasized enhancing the strategic presence of the U.S. in the region but gave little notice to the region’s economic concerns and non-traditional security threats.
In terms of feasibility, the Biden administration has been pressing forward relevant regional plans for the past year or so, especially in the modernization of U.S. alliances and partnerships. Washington has promoted trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, upgraded the Quad and launched AUKUS.
Moreover, with the release of the strategy, Biden gives more gravity to the Indo-Pacific, while reiterating that America sees the People’s Republic of China as the core threat. It reads:
“The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power. … Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world.”
Though the document mentions challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, its eye is clearly on China, despite denials from the Biden administration. It reiterates the administration’s China policy: engage in responsible competition and prevent a downward spiral to conflict. Washington seeks cooperation with Beijing on climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and other global issues.
The Taiwan question has been the central and most sensitive conundrum in China-U.S. ties. The Biden administration remains consistent in its Taiwan policy in the document:
“We will also work with partners inside and outside of the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. … Our approach remains consistent with our One-China policy and our longstanding commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.”
However, apart from supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, the strategy goes further:
“The United States will defend our interests, deter military aggression against our own country and our allies and partners — including across the Taiwan Strait — and promote regional security by developing new capabilities, concepts of operation, military activities, defense industrial initiatives, and a more resilient force posture.”
Does this mean that the U.S. intends to include the Taiwan Strait in its national defense strategy? Or is the U.S. gradually veering away from its strategic ambiguity on Taiwan? Note that this position is in line with the declassified Indo-Pacific document released by the Trump administration in early 2020, which stated that island chain countries and regions, including Taiwan, should be safeguarded. To some degree it’s an indication that Republicans and Democrats have consensus on defending Taiwan.
In addition, the strategy puts a premium on the role of alliances and partnerships, in particular the Quad. In a way, it also elevates India’s role in regional strategic deterrence. The Biden administration is increasingly prompting America’s European allies to engage in the Indo-Pacific, bringing their relationship closer.
But many of its Indo-Pacific allies and partners have complex connections with China in geopolitics, economy and culture, so it will be hard for them to play an effective role in containing China. Bringing in its European allies, Washington can acquire international support to counter China, further complicating the already sophisticated situation in the region.
The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy relies heavily on the capacity and willingness of U.S. allies. Biden has repeatedly underscored the importance of international cooperation in collective efforts, but the effectiveness and sustainability of such cooperation is thrown into question. Furthermore, the Biden administration has few available resources to fulfill its objectives, despite working its way through a strategic contraction, as the country’s omnipresence around the world impedes it from committing more resources to the Indo-Pacific. The region is a key focus of the U.S. but not the only one.
As a senior official put it during the background press call previewing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy: “The administration recognizes the importance of sustained engagement in the region. It also recognizes that the United States doesn’t have the luxury to only focus on one region or one problem at a time.”
Hence, the prospects for Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy are highly uncertain.