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Foreign Policy

Biden’s Indo-Pacific Foray

Feb 26, 2022

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Against the background of the intensifying Ukraine crisis and U.S.-Russia tensions, the Biden administration released its Indo-Pacific Strategy report. The move was an attempt to demonstrate the White House’s control over American foreign policy and its priority on the Indo-Pacific region. The report claims that more than 200 years of history shows that America is an Indo-Pacific power and intends to firmly anchor itself in the region.

This is the first Indo-Pacific strategy report to be released by the White House, reflecting the Biden administration’s intent to dominate in the context of U.S.-China strategic competition. The emergence of “Indo-Pacific” as a geopolitical concept is closely related to America’s efforts to curb the rise of China. It was during the Obama administration that senior U.S. officials began to talk about the Indo-Pacific. In 2017, the Trump administration formally proposed the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy,” and the U.S. Department of Defense released an Indo-Pacific Strategy report in June 2019. There are some fresh ideas in the latest report.

First, it enhances the significance of the strategy and links it to major power competition in the international order. The report said the Indo-Pacific should not be viewed just from the narrow perspective of geopolitical competition. Rather, it said, what happens in the region will “define the very nature of the international order.”

The Biden administration has followed the Trump administration's “free and open” policy statement, which emphasizes the need to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region is “connected, prosperous, secure and resilient.” The report states that the region is entering a “decisive decade,” and it shows the strategic resolve of the Biden administration.

Second, in advancing the strategy, the Biden administration highlights the synergy between the United States and its allies and partners. The report mentions the Indo-Pacific policy concepts of Japan, India, Australia, the United Kingdom and the European Union and vigorously calls for collaboration. According to the report, Biden administration intends to forge “a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions” and build “collective capacity” against adversaries such as China.

The United States will carry out its Indo-Pacific security strategy centered on concept of “integrated deterrence,” designed to integrate the “defense supply chains” of its allies and partners and promote defense technology cooperation. It is worth noting that the report claims the United States will help the EU and NATO to strengthen their relations with Indo-Pacific countries and “build a bridge between the Indo-Pacific region and the Euro-Atlantic region.”

Third, the Biden administration wants to enhance America’s Indo-Pacific economic strategy. U.S. economic policy tools in the region have been weakened by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The Biden administration proposed launching what it called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in October 2021. The report says a detailed plan for this framework will be unveiled in the months to come, but it will cover the digital economy, supply chain security and other aspects. 

The Biden administration will build “diverse, open and predictable” supply chains with U.S. allies and partners, co-invest around decarbonization and clean energy and propose a new digital economy framework. In addition, the Biden administration will take the Indo-Pacific as a priority region for its Build Back Better World initiative (B3W), especially focusing on the digital infrastructure projects such as 5G.

Fourth, the Biden administration gives the Indo-Pacific strategy a stronger ideological connotation. The U.S. will strengthen democratic governance in some countries — an approach that is expected to safeguard “freedom.” The United States will support election security, promoting independent media, developing civil society and combating economic coercion through the Open Government Partnership and other policy initiatives.

The report vows to counter “foreign interference and information manipulation” by China, Russia and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Implementing the United States’ strategy on countering corruption in the Indo-Pacific region will also be an important focus of the Biden administration. The United States will work to improve the “fiscal transparency” of countries in the region. In addition, it will expand the activities of organizations such as the Peace Corps and enhance U.S. soft power through the Quad Fellowship, the Southeast Asia Young Leaders Initiative and other programs.

The report portrays China as a “bully” in the Indo-Pacific. It states that “the PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence.” On the other hand, while stigmatizing China, the report states that the United States seeks to “manage competition with China responsibly.” It says that “our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners.”

This is the first time the American government has used the term “balance of influence” to describe its China policy, which has nuanced and meaningful differences from what is more commonly referred to as “balance of power.”

What alarms Beijing is that the Biden administration more clearly places Taiwan into the framework of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. The report mentions Taiwan or the Taiwan Strait at seven points and identifies Taiwan as a U.S. partner, along with India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. It also states that the United States “will also work with partners inside and outside the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people.”

This statement on Taiwan indicates that the United States is elevating Taiwan’s role in its Indo-Pacific strategy and internationalizing the Taiwan issue.

In this report, the Biden administration lists 10 core lines that the United States will pursue in the next 12 to 24 months, all of which reflect its determination to advance its Indo-Pacific goals. However, the Biden administration faces many challenges. For instance, it exaggerates the political consensus in the United States. Republicans in Congress are not willing to provide support for Biden to build climate resilience and infrastructure in Indo-Pacific countries.

Even within the administration, the foreign policy nd economic policy teams disagree on issues such as Indo-Pacific digital trade. And it should be noted that the Biden administration has adopted a Democratic version of Donald Trump’s “America First,” being timid about free trade agreements for fear of losing votes. This fundamentally undermines the credibility of America’s Indo-Pacific economic strategy. White House officials have declared that the IPEF will not seek approval from the U.S. Congress. This reflects the lame duck nature of Biden’s presidency and leads countries to question the durability of the U.S. administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

There is no need for China to overreact to the strategy report, but it needs to be prepared for pressure from the United States, which is determined to focus on the region for decades to come. Some specific issues raised in the report are closely linked to new tactics by the United States to counter China. For example, the “economic coercion” hyped by the Biden administration may shape “China threat” perceptions in some places.

China needs to continually optimize its economic statecraft, as the Biden administration continues to create new policy tools in the fields of digital economy, cybersecurity, advanced technology and high-standard infrastructure. The U.S. also wants to counterbalance the Belt and Road Initiative by manipulatively raising issues such as corruption, maritime security and illegal fishing. These trends have raised new challenges for China’s neighborhood policy.

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