While not fully formed, the US’s strong focus on the Indo-Pacific has created opportunities for reinvigorated and reshaped economic and strategic partnerships in the region.
US Indo-Pacific policy development
Under President Donald J. Trump, there were marked changes in the way that the US administration interacted with the region. One was terminology. Previous administrations largely spoke about the ‘Asia-Pacific’. Under Trump, the region was consistently referred to as the Indo-Pacific. That change is now embedded in US policy circles.
Using the Indian and Pacific Oceans – the Indo-Pacific – as geographic anchors signals a growing role for India and a more maritime approach. There is also a bipartisan willingness in Washington to challenge what are perceived as aggressive Chinese actions and, as a corollary, to look at ways to limit Beijing’s disruptive role in the region.
One of the first indications of a shift of focus was Trump’s November 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) speech in Vietnam in which he talked about a vision for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). This built on Shinzo Abe’s identical FOIP formulation, with the ‘free and open’ being a reference to the need to counter China’s attempts to gain strategic control over areas such as the South China Sea.
Three foundational documents
The US government published a series of foundational documents setting out its Indo-Pacific policies. The first, the administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy called China a ‘revisionist power’, and continued, ‘China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.’ It added, ‘A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.’
In June 2019, the Department of Defense published the second key document Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region. It opened with the statement, ‘The Indo-Pacific is the Department of Defense’s priority theater.’ The reason for this was described thus, ‘the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.’ The document underlined how the US considered the key to countering the challenge was to work more closely with ‘allies and partners’. That was one of the reasons for the May 2018 change of name for the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) to US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). This highlighted the role of India in the region, and by extension the growing focus on the Quad (US, India, Japan, Australia).
In November 2019, the Department of State published the third foundational document, Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision. It again emphasized working together with partners, highlighting ‘our strategic partner India’ to ‘address shared challenges and advance a shared vision’. Going further, it acknowledged that many countries in the region needed infrastructure development, a sector that China dominated with its BRI. Accordingly, the document described a series of infrastructure programmes designed to offer partners alternatives.
The Biden administration has continued the focus on the Indo-Pacific, introducing new initiatives and emphasizing the importance of working with allies and partners. President Biden’s first official multilateral meeting, held virtually, was with the other leaders of the Quad.
Roundtable and interview summary
Vitally important but slipping away?
Officially, as seen from the documents referenced earlier, the Indo-Pacific formulation of the US encapsulates its stated desire to work with like-minded partners and allies to counter the ‘repressive vision’ of China. US roundtable participants were less certain about how and whether that could happen. As one interviewee put it, ‘The region is of vital importance, and we almost take it as a given.’ There was concern that lack of interest in the region, especially since the end of the Cold War, meant the US would have to move quickly and decisively if it were to retain its position of influence in the Indo-Pacific.
US and the Quad
Participants tended to view the Quad as a good and important idea for building and reinforcing Indo-Pacific partnerships. As it stood, one participant said, the region seemed more like a big zone with an uncoordinated ‘hodgepodge’ of small forces, with some overlapping bilateral and trilateral partnerships. In that context, just to be talking about the Quad and getting a bit of agreement was considered progress. The relationship with Australia was deep and solid, and those with India and Japan were developing well, even though they were more complicated.
Participants agreed that India was a high priority, but some said there were limitations. Its economy and military were developing at a reduced rate, and some purchases, such as the Russian S-400 system, precluded some elements of high-tech defence cooperation with the US. The bottom line for at least one participant was that the US should work as much as it could with India, but ‘don’t go nuts with expectations’.
While there was unanimity about the deep strategic relationship with Japan, the concern was that Tokyo had not really increased defence spending or done something to make China take it seriously. Tokyo seemed to be counting on the US to defend it. Complicating the matter, Japan previously was afraid of being ‘sucked into an American war’; now it was afraid of being abandoned. However, one participant added that if Japan developed its nuclear weapons capability, that would be transformational.
The potential for a ‘Quad plus’
There was interest in expanding the Quad, and two relevant countries discussed, given the structure of this paper, were the UK and France.
The overall consensus was that the US–UK economic and strategic relationship was likely to improve post-Brexit, in large part because London would need the US more than ever. Participants said that the UK’s claim to power was rooted in two things, its nuclear and intelligence capacities. Specifically on defence, it was said that while there were excellent niche capabilities, the UK’s forces were not what they once were. However, there was appreciation for the UK’s apparent willingness to engage in the Indo-Pacific with, for example, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), training with Japan and especially the potential for reinvigorating the Five Power Defence Agreements (FPDA), a ‘low-profile regional security institution’ between the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, which might open up new basing opportunities.
Of concern, however, was that the UK would want to sustain its role in international finance and might think that it was dependent on the goodwill of Beijing to do that. The perception was that China had penetrated the UK ‘in a big way’ and that could affect the UK’s ability to work deeply with the US on strategic issues.
In terms of greater US–France cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, France under President Emmanuel Macron was seen as being unusually US-friendly, to the point of wanting to displace the UK somewhat in the ‘special relationship’, especially as an EU entry point post-Brexit. However, the view was that France would find it difficult to be too antagonistic towards China as it would have to maintain good relations with other EU partners who hold a different view of Beijing.
Ultimately, France was considered a friend of the US now, but the French desire for a special relationship with the US has changed with every French president. As a result, the US could not trust the French consistently like it could the UK and Australia. That played out in intelligence-sharing. Washington could not bring Paris into closer intelligence-sharing without knowing whether it could count on France in a few years from now.
During the roundtable, there were lingering signs of internal divisions regarding how to engage (or not) with China, and uncertainty over the commitment by the US to enact policies that would fundamentally change dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. However, the first half of 2020 saw those divisions largely resolve and the uncertainty dissipate with a marked, bipartisan hardening in the posture of the US towards China. While there had long been concerns about China in the US administration, bipartisan urgency mounted as the events of early 2020 unfolded, including China’s handling of COVID-19, Beijing’s security legislation involving Hong Kong, concern over human rights abuses, as well as aggression on the Indian border and in regional seas.
The resulting actions included Washington stripping Hong Kong of its special economic status, plans to reshore US medical supply chains from China, banning imports from companies linked to slave labour in Xinjiang, blocking billions of dollars’ worth of US pension fund investments in China and banning investments in companies linked to the Chinese military.
Additionally, there were intensified efforts to reassure Indo-Pacific partners in order to reduce their hedging, including strong statements supporting partners against Beijing’s ‘incredibly aggressive actions’, a shift of US defence assets to the region, and the prospect of billions of dollars in spending on a Pacific Deterrence Initiative to strengthen Indo-Pacific partners’ capacities and interoperability. Given US popular sentiment about China, economic concerns and Beijing’s own actions, the US renewed strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific is likely to stay in place as long as China is considered a threat, regardless of changes in administrations.
In a potential indication of things to come, President Biden’s first multilateral meeting, with the other leaders of the Quad, resulted in several concrete initiatives, including a plan for the US and Japan to help finance the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine production in India, with Australia aiding in distribution logistics in the region, including in Oceania. There were also commitments to look at ways to work together in new technologies and climate change.