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Biden’s Indo-Pacific Thinking

Aug 23, 2021
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

After nearly seven months in office, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has begun to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy with high-profile moves, revealing more clearly its strategic intentions and methods.

It significantly strengthened diplomatic maneuvers in the region recently, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin making a flurry of country visits to demonstrate America’s “focus.” The visits were also used to expound the strategic significance of partnerships with regional allies to a U.S. audience.

Over the past 10 years, the Asia-Pacific has been the geostrategic focus of the U.S., with clear continuity. The Bush administration proposed in its second term to shift focus to Asia, the Obama administration moved to “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific and the Trump administration introduced the Indo-Pacific strategy. The current Biden strategy basically follows the general approach of previous administrations to prioritize the region and targets more directly long-term preparations for and engagement in major power competition, with greater attention to detail. The following new features have been observed.

First, institutions have been consolidated. Biden created the position of coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council and assigned it to Kurt Campbell, previously a key player in the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. Campbell leads a team of more than 20 people at the NSC, more for the first time than the number responsible for Europe and the Middle East. This institutional change is clearly significant. With Campbell coordinating, the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce, USAID and others will be in a better position to advance the Indo-Pacific strategy in an orderly manner.

Second, there are more diverse forces to drive implementation of the strategy. Previously, the U.S. mainly relied on Japan, Australia and other core allies, but Biden is now clearly working to bring “extraterritorial” countries into Indo-Pacific affairs. The United Kingdom, Germany, France and other European countries have recently significantly increased their diplomatic and military inputs. NATO and the European Union have also issued so-called strategic documents. America’s Indo-Pacific strategy now features “multi-wheel drive.”

Third, the administration has found more entry points to advance the strategy. The U.S. tended to use regional hot spots and difficult issues to facilitate its design for the Indo-Pacific. But the Biden administration clearly favors the use of regional governance issues. New topics, such as COVID-19 vaccines, supply chains and industrial chain security frequently appear in its diplomatic rhetoric. At the same time, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden team pays greater attention to values-oriented diplomacy and advocates rules and good governance as the basis for Indo-Pacific cooperation.

These practices point to the predominance of a whole set of old ideas that the U.S. has been accustomed to: pursuing a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region and ensuring the realization of its strategic intent through both deterrence and crisis management. 

On one hand, power balance is a tried-and-true strategic tool in U.S. foreign policy. In the Indo-Pacific, it’s convenient and low-cost. Since the end of the Cold War, great changes have taken place in the regional landscape. With a GDP three times that of Japan and five times that of India, China has become the central engine of regional prosperity, with robust economic growth and a tremendous amount of trade. In military and other fields, the country’s leading edge over other countries in the region has gradually become obvious.

From the U.S. perspective, the scenario of China’s rapid rise squeezing America’s strategic space — a concern that emerged more than a decade ago — is becoming a reality at increasing speed. In the face of these changes, it is imperative for the U.S. to restore a more favorable balance of power. To this end, America must declare again and again the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and increase its investments in all aspects. Getting European countries involved and hyping up supply chain security and other new issues are clearly designed to dilute China’s advantages in the region.

On the other hand, while increasing its diplomatic and military investments, the U.S. has always attached great importance to a regional balance of power through deterrence and crisis management. These two tools, one hard and one soft, have long been available in the country’s diplomatic toolbox. Their uses by the Biden administration have been evident. Deterrence is reflected in the administration’s repeated “commitment” to protecting the security interests of its allies — such as diplomatic statements on the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea. It is also manifest in the increase of military assets in the region. Defense Secretary Austin recently talked a lot about “integrated deterrence,” emphasizing a stronger combination of U.S. military advantage with that of its allies as the key to success in competing with well-matched powers.

At the same time, crisis management remains an important means for the Biden administration to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy. Although the U.S. has repeatedly instigated regional tensions to create intervention opportunities, ultimately it does not want to see any incident leading to a major conflict. This is particularly evident in the case of Taiwan.

The Biden administration has played the Taiwan card from time to time. However, when it realized that provokes major Chinese reactions, it had to signal that it rejects Taiwan independence — clearly a crisis-management measure to avoid a showdown.

Generally speaking, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has developed with major power competition in mind but with little strategic innovation, as structural problems still constitute long-term constraints. It is plagued by the gap between an ambitious design and insufficient resources, the reluctance of most regional countries to choose between China and the U.S. and the fact that the U.S., as the so-called global hegemon, has to be mindful of other major regions in the world. These factors facing the U.S. should underpin China’s strategic focus as it exercises patience in the game with the U.S.

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