Committing itself to a more effective, more enduring and stronger role in the Indo-Pacific, and declaring that no other region will have as much of an impact on the world as well as everyday lives of Americans, the US’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, released on Friday, has recognised both the increasing challenge posed by China’s aggression in the region, and the centrality of India in the region.
Terming India a “like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean”; a “driving force” of Quad and other regional fora; as “active in and connected to Southeast Asia”; an “engine for regional growth and development”; and a ‘net security provider in the region”, the policy document commits the US to supporting “India’s continued rise and regional leadership” as a core action point to implement its vision of the Indo-Pacific, in particular over the next 12-14 months.
A free and open Indo-Pacific region
The strategy – the first such region-specific strategy to be released under the Joe Biden administration – says that the US is committed to a “free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient” Indo-Pacific region. It defines the region as stretching from the US’s Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean, and outlines its political, military, strategic and economic importance for the US.
It mentions the bipartisan support that greater investment in the region has had in the US, across several administrations; it focuses on thematic challenges such as the pandemic and climate as well as area-specific challenges such as the situation in Korean peninsula; and it explicitly recognises the increasing challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a key reason for this focus, including its aggression vis-a-vis India.
The strategy was piloted by the National Security Council, which is seen as the key driver of the most important policy initiatives of the Biden administration when it comes to China and Indo-Pacific.
Engaging with India on China threat
A senior administration official emphasised the history of cooperation and engagement with India across recent administrations and said, “We see tremendous opportunities in working with another democracy, with a country that has a maritime tradition, and that understands the importance of the global commons to advance critical issues in the region.”
The official added that while India was in a different place compared to other countries (other members of Quad for instance are the US’s treaty allies and India is not), India faced “very significant challenges”. “China’s behaviour at the Line of Actual Control has had a galvanising impact on India.” This was in response to a question on whether AUKUS showed that Australia had stopped “hedging its bets” while India was “not so sure yet”.
Experts suggest that the clear focus in the strategy on the China challenge, and the recognition of Indian centrality across spheres, both as a bilateral partner and through Quad, will further deepen ties between Washington DC and Delhi.
Richard Verma, former US ambassador to India, said, “The strategy is strong and smart, and it’s reassuring to see India playing a leading role. As natural allies, India and the US have a shared interest in a free and open, safe, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. That’s exactly what the strategy aims to achieve in a balanced and thoughtful way.”
Consolidation of India-US strategic ties
Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation-America in Washington DC, said, “The document heralds a further consolidation of India-US strategic ties, both in terms of shared challenges such as on China, but also as an important partner in its own right. In fact, the prominence given to India and the Quad is notable.”
On China, the strategy says that Beijing is combining its “economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might” to pursue a “sphere of influence” in the Indo-Pacific and seek to become the “world’s most influential power”.
It added, “The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbours in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behaviour. In the process, the PRC is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”
Shaping the strategic environment
The US says it does not aim to change China, but to “shape the strategic environment in which it operates”, by “building a balance of influence” that is “maximally favourable (sic)” to the US, its allies and partners, and the interests and values they share.
To tackle this and other challenges such as climate crisis and the pandemic, the strategy outlines five core US objectives in the region – advancing a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, building connections within and beyond the region, driving regional prosperity, bolstering Indo-Pacific security, building regional resilience to transnational threats.
The role of allies
It also recognises that the US cannot do so on its own, and underlines the role of allies and partners, such as India. Besides supporting India, the strategy outlines nine other steps to achieve US objectives – more investment of resources, leading an Indo-Pacific economic framework, reinforcing deterrence, strengthening ASEAN, delivering on Quad, expanding US-Japan-South Korea cooperation, building resilience in the Pacific Islands, supporting good governance and accountability, and supporting “open, resilient, secure and trustworthy technologies”.
The Taiwan factor
Commenting on the overall document, Ryan Fedasuik, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology, said that five key topics dominated the strategy – climate, technology supply chains, economic integration, stability on the Korean peninsula, and most of all, China’s “malign influence and coercive economic practices”.
“The strategy offered clear, welcome statements about deterring China and providing support for Taiwan. The focus on combating climate crisis is a welcome addition. US partners in Southeast Asia are expected to be some of those most severely affected by changes in temperature and rising ocean levels. By comparison, the Trump administration’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy did not mention these issues at all.”
He, however, added that while the Biden administration’s strategy clearly articulates the US’s top priorities in the region, it offered only limited details about US policy towards specific partners, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and each of the Quad members individually.
Identifying the possible challenges, ORF’s Dhruva Jaishankar said, “A big question mark surrounds the Indo-Pacific economic framework, and while more has been promised for later in 2022, it remains to be seen whether the steps taken on standards, technology, and regulation will be sufficient and purposefully executed.”