The strange case of America’s Indo-Pacific strategies

The latest edition of the United States’ (US) Indo-Pacific Strategy[↗] (IPS) promotes ideas and initiatives for the preservation of common goods like prosperity, resilience, and the principle that countries have the right to choose their path free from coercion and bullying. Critics point out[↗] it lacks specifics, and the most important chapter on trade and economy is still missing. Beyond that, US economic and security policies need to be harmonised to reconcile principles designed to attract broad support with actions necessary to prevail in a narrower strategy of national competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Coming almost a year after Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s Integrated Review[↗] that introduced the United Kingdom’s (UK) ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, it is worth taking a critical look at the content and process behind the corresponding policy from Washington, DC, alongside how the US IPS might be received in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The IPS

In February 2022, President Joe Biden’s administration released the IPS, following that of predecessors Barack Obama (2011 Pivot/rebalance to Asia[↗]) and Donald Trump (2019 ‘A Free And Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision’[↗]). The IPS projects a narrative of American support to the Indo-Pacific in various areas, but particularly as part of a collective response to the growing and malign influence of the PRC, 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 the PRC’s growing economic influence. There are almost twice as many respondents expressing concern for the PRC’s growing economic influence as welcoming it, while more than two thirds welcome that of the US. It is therefore odd that the IPS was released before the long-awaited economic framework that would lend more weight to these pledges. 

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

The IPS introduces the qualifier ‘responsible’ to American competition with the PRC, 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 that 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 the PRC 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 the PRC in the National Security Council, wrote in his latest book Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Independence 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 the PRC 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 harmonised, it seems wise to assume that preserving and building American advantages are as much – or more – a part of its competition with the PRC as supporting a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, and on occasions where they are inconsistent, the former will sometimes take precedence. 

Ned Price, the current spokesperson at the Department of State, confirmed[↗]:

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 the PRC as a bully, and to assuage concerns that Washington expects countries to take sides in PRC-US competition. However, the following examples show how 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[↗]: ‘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 the PRC 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 the PRC is pursuing a military modernisation programme ‘that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the US to achieve global preeminence in the future’. US policy to prevent the PRC’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’.

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, Lindsay Graham, a US Senator, tweeted[↗]

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.

HM Government did reconsider its position (though 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 United States’. But when Cambodia exercised its choice to lease a port area to the PRC 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 the PRC 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 the country in June 2021 ‘that a PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations.’

Policy harmonisation or Jekyll and Hyde? 

American foreign policy is so complicated that strong harmonisation 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 IPS is 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.

The remaining questions are these: Will the challenges stemming from the IPS being out of sync with top line strategies be resolved by the release of the Biden administration’s economic, security and defence strategies? Is it just a problem of sequencing, or are there more fundamental problems preventing those policies being adequately resourced and harmonised with the IPS narrative of reassurance and anti-coercion? And, if so, should residents of the Indo-Pacific ‘strategic environment’ prepare to negotiate the mood swings of a down-at-heel Jekyll and Hyde?

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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