The strange case of America’s Indo-Pacific strategies

The new US Indo-Pacific strategy promotes prosperity, resilience, and the principle of countries choosing their own path, but critics say it lacks specifics.

Expert comment
Published 14 March 2022 4 minute READ

Philip Shetler-Jones

Former Consulting Fellow for the Indo-Pacific, Asia-Pacific Programme

Coming almost one year after the UK government’s Integrated Review which introduced a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, it is worth taking a critical look at the content and process behind the corresponding policy from Washington, alongside how the US Indo-Pacific strategy (IPS) may be received in the Indo-Pacific region.

In February 2022, President Joe Biden’s administration released its own IPS following those of predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump. This new IPS projects a narrative of American support to the Indo-Pacific in various areas, but particularly as part of a collective response to a growing and malign influence of China, which is said to be transforming beneficial rules and norms and pursuing a sphere of influence in this region where its ‘coercion and aggression…is most acute’.

Promises to support abstract outcomes such as prosperity, connectivity, resilience, infrastructure, and the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are likely to receive a welcome provided they are accompanied by resources.

A recent poll indicated a high level of concern in the region towards China’s growing economic influence, with almost twice as many respondents expressing concern as welcoming it, while more than two-thirds welcome that of the US. It is therefore odd the IPS was released before the long-awaited economic framework which would lend more weight to these pledges.

Releasing the IPS before the completion of the revised US National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defence Strategy (NDS) leaves the door open to uncertainty

Since the Obama administration failed to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and the Trump administration then cancelled it, the question of how much policy change to expect from the Biden administration has understandably been a source of uncertainty in the region. Biden kept Trump’s tariffs on China and, although the slogan of ‘America First’ is gone, the sentiment lives on under reinforced provisions of ‘buy American’.

This IPS introduces the qualifier ‘responsible’ to American competition with China, which is probably intended as a signal of a break in style from the previous administration. This may come as a relief in the region which hosted the hottest moments of the last Cold War.

The Indo-Pacific audience can only speculate if ‘maintain US primacy in the region’ remains – as stated in the declassified 2018 Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific – one of America’s top four national interests. If it does, the IPS objective not to change China but to ‘shape the strategic environment in which it operates’ may lose some of its reassuring effect for the other inhabitants of that strategic environment.

Sources of uncertainty

Releasing the IPS before the completion of the revised US National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defence Strategy (NDS) leaves the door open to uncertainty about where its aims and priorities sit in relation to those of other top-line strategies.

Ryan Hass, former director for China in the US National Security Council, wrote in his latest book that the US ‘needs an Asia strategy for dealing with China, rather than a China strategy for Asia’, and that may still be the best way to understand where the IPS fits in. It identifies the influence of China first among the mounting challenges facing the region, yet America does not have a formal overall ‘China policy’ and the public debate continues between advocates of restraint, liberal internationalism, and primacy.

Unless – or until – these policies are harmonized, it seems wise to assume that preserving and building American advantages are as much – or more – a part of its competition with China as supporting a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. And, on occasions where they are inconsistent, the former will sometimes take precedence.

American foreign policy is so complicated that strong harmonization efforts are required to suppress an effect resembling a multiple personality disorder

Ned Price, the current spokesperson at the US Department of State, confirmed that strategic competition is the ‘frame through which we see our relationship with China. We will counter China’s aggressive actions, sustain our key military advantages, defend democratic values, invest in advanced technologies, and restore our vital security partnerships’. A closer examination of each of those areas indicates what might happen when inconsistencies arise to be resolved.

The IPS assertion that ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific requires that governments can make their own choices’, seems intended to contrast America as a champion of national sovereignty and China as a bully, and to assuage concerns that Washington expects countries to take sides in China-US competition. However, freedom to choose occasionally conflicts with what American officials deem necessary to shape the ‘strategic environment’ in ways that maintain primacy and limit Chinese influence.

Primacy in trade was on Obama’s mind when he signed the TPP in 2016, remarking that TPP ‘allows America – and not countries like China – to write the rules of the road in the 21st century’. An administration official reportedly fretted about ‘a trend toward constant accommodation’ of China when Britain exercised its freedoms to choose membership of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Technology is another area where freedom of choice can sit awkwardly with other strategic imperatives. The 2018 US NDS determines that China is pursuing a military modernization programme that ‘seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the US to achieve global pre-eminence in the future’.

This IPS introduces the qualifier ‘responsible’ to American competition with China, which is probably intended as a signal of a break in style from the previous administration

US policy to prevent China’s ‘industrial policies and unfair trading practices from distorting global markets and harming US competitiveness’ is expected to be conducted in ways that ‘work closely with allies and like-minded countries to prevent Chinese acquisition of military and strategic capabilities’.

But working closely to achieve these strategic aims is not always as cosy as it sounds, as the UK – among others – discovered in 2020 when the US lobbied against it retaining Huawei as a 5G telecommunications provider. At the time, US senator Lindsay Graham said this decision has ‘the potential to jeopardise US-UK intelligence sharing agreements and could greatly complicate a US-UK free trade agreement. I hope the British government will reconsider its decision’.

The UK government did reconsider its position, although as much through internal as external pressure, and excluded Huawei. As the new concept of ‘integrated deterrence’ – said to be a key piece of the forthcoming US Defence Strategy – is applied, the potential for such conflicts of principle is likely to increase. According to Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defence, ‘… most important[ly], [integrated deterrence means] using the capability and capacity that’s resident in our partners and allies’.

Potential conflicts of principle are not restricted to allies and Europeans. Freedom to choose in foreign policy orientation can hardly but be limited by the aim of the declassified 2018 US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific to ensure the Pacific Islands ‘remain aligned’ with the US. But when Cambodia exercised its choice to lease a port area to China for development in 2020, the US used the Global Magnitsky Act to place sanctions on ‘Cambodian leaders associated with development of Chinese basing facilities at Dara Sakor port, specifically linking the sanction to illegal land seizures and the “neutrality” of Cambodian military bases’.

More than three times as many Cambodian respondents chose China over the US when asked ‘who do you have the strongest confidence in to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law?’ in a survey of ASEAN opinion. Yet Wendy Sherman, US Deputy Secretary of State, observed during a visit to that country in June 2021 that a Chinese military base in Cambodia would ‘undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations’.

Policy harmonization or Jekyll and Hyde

American foreign policy is so complicated that strong harmonization efforts are required to suppress an effect resembling a multiple personality disorder. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the protagonist takes a mysterious but ultimately unreliable potion to ensure his good side – in the personality of Dr Jekyll a mild, socially-adjusted character – prevails over his dark impulses, enacted by a more brutal and dangerous alter ego, Mr Hyde.

The strange case of America’s Indo-Pacific strategies 2nd part

The IPS is rather like the good doctor, seeking to enlist regional actors by framing their local interests in a common narrative that corresponds with US strategic objectives. However, the rougher measures taken by Mr Hyde to put America first, maintain primacy, and curb a hegemonic rival will not always feel consistent with that narrative of freedom for Indo-Pacific regional partners.

Questions remain around whether the challenges stemming from the IPS being out of sync with top-line strategies can be resolved by the release of the Biden administration’s economic, security, and defence strategies.

Sequencing could be the problem, but there may be more fundamental problems preventing those policies being adequately resourced and harmonized with the IPS narrative of reassurance and anti-coercion. If so, residents of the Indo-Pacific ‘strategic environment’ should prepare to negotiate the mood swings of a down-at-heel Jekyll and Hyde.

This article was originally published by the Council on Geostrategy.