The Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has taken on new meanings. However, seeing as the Biden administration has adopted the Democratic Party’s version of the “America First” line, the credibility and appeal of its Indo-Pacific economic strategy is fundamentally limited. China need not overreact to Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy report, but it does need to prepare now for a trend that will persist for a long time, namely an all-out effort by the United States to return to and manage the Indo-Pacific. Some specific issues raised in this report and the new tricks that the United States is using to pressure China demand our close attention.
The Biden administration published the Indo-Pacific strategy report against the background of an increasingly severe Ukraine crisis and very tense U.S.-Russian relations. This act was an attempt to put on display the White House’s total control over foreign policy and the U.S. resolve to return to the Indo-Pacific region. The report states that the United States has been an “Indo-Pacific power” for more than 200 years and that it will steadfastly anchor itself in the Indo-Pacific.
This is the first U.S. Indo-Pacific strategic report published under the White House name. It embodies the Biden administration’s intention to seize dominance over the Indo-Pacific against a background of comprehensively intensifying strategic competition with China. The emergence of “Indo-Pacific” as a geopolitical concept is closely tied to the U.S. search for ways of suppressing the rise of China. High-ranking U.S. officials began discussing the “Indo-Pacific” in a big way under Obama. In 2017, the Trump administration officially put forward the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” and the U.S. Department of Defense published a special Indo-Pacific strategy report in June 2019.
The new meanings of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy differ from the past in four main areas:
First, it further increases the importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy by linking it to the alignment of the great powers centered on the international order. The report states that the Indo-Pacific should not be viewed solely from the narrow perspective of great power geopolitical competition, but rather that the Indo-Pacific situation should be seen as “defining the basic nature of the international order.” The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” policy tagline, but is also emphasizing the need to realize “connectivity, prosperity, security, and resilience” in the region. The report states that the trends of the next 10 years will be “decisive” for the Indo-Pacific. This reveals the Biden administration’s sense of urgency over strategy deployment and implementation.
Second, in advancing its Indo-Pacific strategy, the Biden administration is working to highlight the fact that it is on the same wavelength as its allies and partners. The report lays out Indo-Pacific-related policy concepts from Japan, India, Australia, the UK, and the EU in a major effort to exaggerate the consistency and interconnections between the U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific and that of its allies and partners. The report states that the Biden administration will build a “a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions” and create a “collective capacity” against its opponent, namely China. The United States will still advance its security strategy centered on “integrated deterrence” by integrating allies and partners into a “defense supply chain” and pushing forward with cooperation in defense S&T. An aspect of the report that merits close attention is its clear mention of the fact that the United States will encourage the EU and NATO to strengthen relations with the Indo-Pacific region: It will “help build bridges between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic.”
Third, the Biden administration is working hard to repair the “economic weak link” of its Indo-Pacific strategy. U.S. economic policy tools in this region were weakened by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In October 2021, the Biden administration put forward the concept of an “Indo-Pacific economic framework.” This report stated that a detailed scheme concerning this concept would be introduced in the first half of this year and that it would touch upon multiple areas such as the digital economy and supply chain security. According to the report, the Biden administration, together with its allies and partners, will build a “diverse, open, and predictable” supply chain, expand joint investments centered on decarbonization and clean energy, and put forward a new “digital economy framework.” The Biden administration will also make the Indo-Pacific an important region for implementing the “Build Back Better World” (B3W) initiative, with a particular emphasis on building digital (i.e., 5G) infrastructure.
Fourth, the Biden Administration has given its Indo-Pacific strategy a stronger ideological coloring. The Biden administration has emphasized the need to strengthen domestic democratic governance in the relevant countries and then to uphold Indo-Pacific “freedom” from the inside out. By means of initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the United States will support relevant countries when it comes to safeguarding election security, maintaining media independence, developing civil society, and countering economic coercion. The report also mentions the need to oppose “external interference” and “information manipulation” by countries such as China and Russia in Indo-Pacific nations. The implementation in the Indo-Pacific of the first United States Strategy on Countering Corruption will be another important move by the Biden administration. According to the report, the United States will dedicate itself to raising “fiscal transparency” in the countries of the Indo-Pacific. In addition, the United States will expand activities of organizations such as the Peace Corps in the Indo-Pacific. It will reinforce U.S. soft power through such approaches as establishing quadrilateral mechanism fellowships and implementing the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.
The sections of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy report that concern China try to put the “bully” label on China, falsely stating that China “bullies” and “economically coerces” the countries concerned—that it makes comprehensive use of economic, diplomatic, military, and technical forces to establish a “sphere of influence” in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the report states that the United States hopes to responsibly manage competition with China. Its objective is “not to change China, but to shape the strategic environment in which China operates, establishing a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States and its allies.” This is the first time that U.S. officials have used the phrase “balance of influence” to elucidate U.S. policy towards China. It differs in a subtle but important way from the usual “balance of power.”
Alarmingly, the Biden administration has made it even clearer that it is placing the Taiwan issue within the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategic framework. The report mentions Taiwan or the Taiwan Strait a total of seven times. Moreover, it describes the Taiwan region as an important partner in the Indo-Pacific—an equal to India, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. The report says the following: “We will also work with partners inside and outside of 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 is a new formulation of the Biden administration in relation to its Taiwan policy and shows that the United States intends to reinforce the role of the Taiwan region in its Indo-Pacific strategy, thus giving impetus to the “internationalization” of the Taiwan issue.
The Biden administration manifests its resolve to advance the Indo-Pacific strategy by especially listing in this report the important policies that the United States will adopt over the next two years. However, the challenges facing the Biden administration are also very noticeable. The report exaggerates the U.S. domestic political consensus regarding Indo-Pacific policy, for the Republican Party does not wish to provide support to Biden’s efforts to promote “climate resilience” and infrastructure construction among Indo-Pacific nations. Even within the Biden administration, there exist relatively major disagreements between the foreign policy team and the economic policy team centered on such matters as an Indo-Pacific digital trade agreement.
Clearly, the Biden administration has adopted the Democratic Party’s version of the “America First” line, and its rejection of free trade agreements out of fear of losing votes fundamentally limits the credibility and appeal of its Indo-Pacific economic strategy. A White House official claimed that the approval of the U.S. Congress would not be sought for the “Indo-Pacific economic framework.” This is a reflection of the resistance to Biden’s rule and will make the relevant countries doubtful of the sustainability of Biden government policies.
China need not overreact to this Indo-Pacific strategy report by the Biden administration, but it does need to prepare now for a trend that will persist for a long time, namely an all-out effort by the United States to return to and manage the Indo-Pacific. Some specific issues raised in this report and the new tricks that the United States is using to pressure China demand our close attention. For example, the “economic coercion” hyped up by the United States aims to reinforce an understanding of “Chinese coercion” among the relevant countries, but this also reminds China of the need to continuously optimize its methods of using economic measures to bring about diplomatic objectives.
In addition, the Biden administration is continually creating new policy tools in areas such as the digital economy, cybersecurity, advanced technology, and high-standard infrastructure, is trying to use the so-called problems of “corruption,” “maritime security,” and “illegal fishing” to put pressure on the Belt and Road Initiative, and, by expanding the activities of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Asia-Pacific region, is striking back at China’s protection of its own rights upon the seas. These trends present new problems and trials for China’s foreign policy towards its neighbors.