The Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs Indo-Specifics
And it needs to talk more directly about China.
The Biden administration’s newly released Indo-Pacific Strategy embraces many of the priorities and initiatives adopted by the Trump administration. Unfortunately, the strategy and its accompanying fact sheet are surprisingly thin on details, methods, and means for confronting America’s most daunting challenge in the Indo-Pacific: the rise of an increasingly belligerent and nationalist People’s Republic of China.
On the plus side, the new strategy document retains the “Indo-Pacific” framework adopted by the previous administration—one that merges the old theaters of East and South Asia, the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific into one super-theater. It also mirrors the previous strategy in discussing the need to strengthen U.S. alliances, reaffirm America’s role as an “Indo-Pacific power,” enhance the “Quad,” support India’s rise, expand Coast Guard activities in the region, host a summit with ASEAN leaders, and prioritize signing new Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the Pacific Islands. All of this is fine.
What is objectionable is not so much what is in the strategy than what is not in it. Namely, it repeatedly skirts around the defining challenge of our time: China’s rise.
The strategy is long on vague, anodyne pledges: “We will foster security ties among allies” and “meet civilian security challenges” and “build connections.” But it and the fact sheet are worryingly short on concrete proposals and creative ideas for meeting the China challenge. Indeed, Biden’s strategy says virtually nothing about the military competition with China or the steps necessary to roll back its intimidation of allies and partners.
The two Indo-Pacific strategy documents released by the Trump administration—one by the Defense Department in June 2019 and one by the State Department in November 2019—were longer, more substantive and more frank about China’s nefarious activities in the region and the need to confront Beijing. They contained a range of concrete proposals, from the BUILD Act to changing force posture in the Indo-Pacific, the Blue Dot Network, and numerous new infrastructure and energy initiatives.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy largely avoids defining both the challenges posed by Beijing and the U.S.-China relationship. It does note that China “pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power,” and criticizes Beijing for “coercion and aggression” and for “undermining human rights and international law.” However, it strikes a comparatively more dovish and conciliatory tone about U.S. objectives vis-à-vis China: “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, and the interests and values we share. We will also seek to manage competition with the PRC responsibly. We will cooperate with our allies and partners while seeking to work with the PRC in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.”
One of the more glaring gaps in the Biden administration’s strategy is the relative absence of a coherent U.S. economic strategy in the Indo-Pacific. It promises to launch an Indo-Pacific economic framework later this year that will include “doubling down on our economic ties to the region,” but for now details remain woefully scarce.
Even the circumstances surrounding the release of the strategy document were peculiar. The Biden administration published the document on a late Friday afternoon, a release window typically reserved for scandals and news you want buried. Second, the release came before publication of the administration’s National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy. Ideally, the former would be guided by and contextualized within the latter two.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy leans into discussing all the good things the U.S. is already doing in the region, while pledging to do more of them. Fine. But on the defining challenge of our time, the document is too vague, too indirect, too diplomatic, and nearly silent on critical defense and military aspects of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
One hopes these deficiencies are addressed in the forthcoming National Defense and National Security Strategies. Because any Indo-Pacific strategy that doesn’t directly identify the China threat and offer a comprehensive strategy for addressing it is no Indo-Pacific strategy at all.
Jeff M. Smith is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center and the editor and contributing author of Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (2018).