Biden Hasn’t Taken His Eyes off the Ball in Asia

The new U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy shows the White House is keeping its focus on the region even as it grapples with Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane while departing Australia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane while departing Australia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane while departing Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 12. KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration released its Indo-Pacific Strategy this month, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a meeting with his counterparts from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—in Melbourne, Australia. It came just as the crisis in Ukraine escalated, with Russian forces gathering on the country’s borders and in neighboring Belarus. The willingness of the Biden administration to dispatch its top diplomat to Australia as it contended with Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine underscores the significance it attaches to the Quad and to the Indo-Pacific region within its overall security strategy.

The published strategy is a timely statement about the Biden administration’s concerns and intentions in the region. Its objectives are ambitious, but it also clearly lays out the pathways by which they can be accomplished. On a few issues, the vaulting goals may be difficult to meet given domestic and regional constraints. However, that the White House has maintained a focus on challenges in Asia while coping with the trying situation in Ukraine is commendable.

The Biden administration’s rationale for a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific is no surprise, and the new strategy quickly homes in on the multiple challenges that China poses to the stability of the region. As it states forthrightly, China’s “coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.” To counter China’s increasingly assertive posture in the region, the document calls for a strategy that revies existing alliances, as well as boosting the newly formed AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific. This posture differs from that of the Trump administration, which had little or no use for traditional alliances in Asia or elsewhere.

The Biden administration released its Indo-Pacific Strategy this month, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a meeting with his counterparts from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—in Melbourne, Australia. It came just as the crisis in Ukraine escalated, with Russian forces gathering on the country’s borders and in neighboring Belarus. The willingness of the Biden administration to dispatch its top diplomat to Australia as it contended with Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine underscores the significance it attaches to the Quad and to the Indo-Pacific region within its overall security strategy.

The published strategy is a timely statement about the Biden administration’s concerns and intentions in the region. Its objectives are ambitious, but it also clearly lays out the pathways by which they can be accomplished. On a few issues, the vaulting goals may be difficult to meet given domestic and regional constraints. However, that the White House has maintained a focus on challenges in Asia while coping with the trying situation in Ukraine is commendable.

The Biden administration’s rationale for a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific is no surprise, and the new strategy quickly homes in on the multiple challenges that China poses to the stability of the region. As it states forthrightly, China’s “coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.” To counter China’s increasingly assertive posture in the region, the document calls for a strategy that revies existing alliances, as well as boosting the newly formed AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific. This posture differs from that of the Trump administration, which had little or no use for traditional alliances in Asia or elsewhere.

The strategy outlines how the United States could help shape the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific by working in concert with these allies and friends. In keeping with the Biden administration’s intent to demonstrate that open, democratic societies remain a model worthy of emulation, the strategy makes clear that the United States will promote democratic institutions, support the freedom of the press, and encourage the growth of civil society in the region—a laudable goal as China touts its model of development as an attractive alternative. The strategy is also novel in its emphasis on countering a range of transnational security challenges that haunt the region.

To some degree, Beijing has made headway in parts of South and Southeast Asia with its aggressive promotion of infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Biden administration’s strategy recognizes this endeavor and seeks to counter it in the context of the Quad by promoting cooperation in areas including global health, clean energy, and infrastructure. These are all laudable goals, but the Biden administration may find them to be a heavy lift for two reasons. First, it will have to persuade the U.S. Congress to loosen its purse strings, and second, it will need to carefully coordinate its efforts with allies.

Notably, the Biden administration seeks to leverage the growing interest of America’s trans-Atlantic European partners in engaging with the region. It seeks to tie the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, emphasizing shared agendas—especially in the maritime domain. This component of the strategy is significant for two related reasons. In the past few years, the U.K., France, and Germany have all expressed interest in playing bigger roles in the Indo-Pacific. However, the U.S.-France relationship has frayed in the wake of the AUKUS agreement to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and undercut a prior French deal. This U.S. nod toward involving European allies may somewhat assuage French misgivings.

Beyond promoting cooperation in a range of areas, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy does not pull any punches when it comes to guaranteeing security in the region. It quite bluntly highlights that deterring aggression and countering coercion both at land and sea will be cornerstones of this strategy. It avoids any discussion of actual U.S. military deployments—which avoids revealing much to adversaries such as China. The strategy also gives some attention to less conventional threats to regional security that should not be overlooked, from cybersecurity to counterterrorism.

Critics may find two faults with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. First, given the importance of India in the Quad and its fraught relationship with China, it is not surprising that the strategy promises to support its regional leadership. However, if India continues on its current path of democratic backsliding, it may no longer be a robust partner. Furthermore, the Indian government’s current economic policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi are antithetical to many of the goals outlined in the Indo-Pacific Strategy; the growth of crony capitalism and the rise of protectionism could hobble India from dovetailing its policies with U.S. strategy. Meanwhile, as Russian President Vladimir Putin moves against Ukraine, India—reliant on Russia for advanced weapons sales—has not mustered a clear-cut response to the crisis and struggles to support U.S. sanctions.

Second, the stress on infrastructure development is no doubt crucial, especially in countering China’s BRI initiatives. But without bipartisan consensus at home on Biden’s Build Back Better World project, it is hard to see how the United States can offer leadership or the necessary resources to offer a meaningful alternative. In the absence of a concerted U.S.-led effort to promote infrastructure projects, China may step up its ongoing efforts across the region under the BRI. Many Indo-Pacific states that lack the resources to meet infrastructure needs may welcome these offers unless other opportunities are available.

These shortcomings aside, that the Biden administration hasn’t taken its eye off the Indo-Pacific is especially significant at a time when it is confronted with compelling domestic challenges and the ongoing threat from Russia in Eastern Europe. It’s worth watching in the weeks and months ahead how the administration translates these words into actions across the region.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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