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Foreign Policy

The Lame Indo-Pacific Strategy

Feb 13, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

On Jan. 21, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting, the first between the two since Kishida was elected in a parliamentary vote.

Determined to further strengthen their alliance and create a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the U.S. and Japanese leaders covered virtually all the familiar topics against China raised in U.S.-Japan bilateral talks — the Taiwan Strait, human rights, economic security and maritime issues. Japan and the United States also agreed to hold the second in-person Quad summit in Japan in the first half of the year.

Before Biden and Kishda met, the two countries issued a joint statement urging China to increase transparency and promote nuclear disarmament. This naturally drew a strong backlash from China and captured wide attention from the media.

But one element of the summit seems to have received less attention that it deserved — the establishment of an “economic version of the 2+2 Ministerial Consultative Mechanism between the two sides to demonstrate the countries’ intent to move forward with Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF.

I believe this shows that the U.S. and Japan have a clear understanding of the lack of economic support for their Indo-Pacific Strategy — a fatal weakness. But there is little hope of curing the fundamentally lame, though highly militarized, concept.

First, the Biden administration has not abandoned the military mindset behind the Asia strategies of successive U.S. administrations. We can see the obvious features of this militarized diplomacy when we look at the talks between the U.S. and its Asian allies, and when two-thirds of the summit talks are military- and security-related. Whether it is the Asian rebalance proposed by the Obama administration 10 years ago or the Indo-Pacific Strategy now, the keywords are basically anti-missile systems, deterrence, extended deterrence, naval force expansion, increased defense spending by allies and armament construction.

During the January meeting, the Japanese prime minister expressed to President Biden his determination to fundamentally strengthen Japan’s defense forces, and Biden expressed his support. As the U.S. sees it, the Asian strategy seems to be that military integration is the first priority, with economic integration naturally following. The problem is that the ultimate beneficiary of a highly militarized regional strategy may be primarily the military industry, not the people of the region.

Second, the Indo-Pacific economic framework envisioned by U.S. politicians is basically a rhetorical concept, with no specific content or roadmap except for the emphasis on high standards and the cutting edge. It is irrelevant and unattractive to most countries in the region. At the end of October, President Biden announced at the East Asia Summit that the United States would explore with partners the development of an Indo-Pacific economic framework that would define shared objectives around trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy, technology, supply chain resiliency, decarbonization, clean energy, infrastructure, worker standards and other areas of common interest.

In November, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M.  Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Chi Tai, during their successive visits to Japan and other East Asian countries, also proposed cutting-edge regional economic cooperation standards. However, the U.S. is largely outside the Asian integration process as it has withdrawn from the TPP and is not a member of the RCEP, which is already in force. In addition, the U.S. is unwilling to join the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement.

The new framework seems to abandon regional cooperation based on Asia-Pacific and ASEAN+6 that has been in the making for 30 years. Rather, it has the intention of starting afresh. Yet most countries in the region are concerned about reaping further development benefits from integration, especially those less-developed countries that urgently need practical help to shift to a digital and green economy.

The IPEF is only rhetorically high standard and high quality, and regional countries will regard it as merely a theoretical arm to maintain U.S. hegemonic tools in the region.

Japan’s wait-and-see attitude toward China’s application to join the CPTPP — on grounds that China has not met the rhetorical high standards — is similar. In addition, the U.S. itself is unwilling to return to the TPP and prevents other countries from participating in it.   These contradictory approaches can only cause the mechanism to idle and deplete the economic leadership Japan expects to have.

Third, the Indo-Pacific economic framework is still based on the misconception that the U.S. is the benefactor of Asia’s economic development. The U.S. believes that its alliance system has brought peace to the region; that the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation cruises has brought safe passage for commercial fleets; that the U.S. market has made Asian countries rich through exports; that U.S. investment has allowed Asian economies to take off; that U.S. technological innovation has created Asian economic upgrades; and that the U.S. dollar has ensured the smooth flow of international trade payments in Asia.

It is undeniable that the United States has contributed to the development of the Asian economy, but Asian economic development mainly relies on its own enormous momentum. From the 1990s onward, in particular, Asian integration has basically developed without the participation of the United States. The conceit of American indispensability in Asian economic integration will only lead to the increasingly less U.S. regional presence in Asia.

The U.S. and its allies need to make a strategic shift in their Asian strategy from a highly militarized mindset to thinking about what countries in the region want. This is also in the fundamental interest of the U.S., because misallocation of resources will only make the lame Indo-Pacific Strategy more difficult to pull off.

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