Over a year into the Biden administration, the United States has yet to articulate a coherent China strategy. Instead, it has “muddled through” on China, repeating platitudes “about the importance of East Asia and about the enduring U.S. commitment to regional security and prosperity” offered by previous administrations. In an attempt to address the lack of strategic clarity on its overall policy in the Indo-Pacific, the White House released a new Indo-Pacific Strategy on February 11.
However, those hoping that the strategy would outline a clear vision of how the Biden administration intends to address strategic competition with China are likely to be disappointed. The strategy does little to clarify specific U.S. objectives in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China, the ways and means through which it will pursue those objectives, and the opportunity costs and trade-offs of doing so.
To be clear, the document is a regional, not a China-specific, strategy, as a senior administration official reportedly stated. Developing a successful strategy for the Indo-Pacific is critical for the United States to secure its vital national interests in the region. As Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye argue, crafting a sound China policy requires the United States to “get Asia right.” This, as China expert Ryan Hass asserts, means that Washington “needs an Asia strategy for dealing with China, rather than a China strategy for Asia.”
Yet, despite highlighting the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the strategy fails to sufficiently detail how the Biden administration’s broader plans for the Indo-Pacific will address the difficulties posed by China. Rather, it offers vague bromides, declaring that the objective of Washington’s China policy is “not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.” To create a favorable strategic environment in the region, the White intends to pursue five regional goals: “advance a free and open Indo-Pacific”; “build connections within and beyond the region”; “drive regional prosperity”; “bolster Indo-Pacific security”; and “build regional resilience to transnational threats.” However, the strategy fails to sufficiently describe in detail how it will attain these objectives and how achieving them will positively shape the PRC’s behavior.
Rather than identifying specific policies the White House will pursue under its five-pronged strategy to shape PRC behavior, the document merely mentions the Biden administration’s intent to balance competition and cooperation in its relationship with China. The United States, it declares, will seek “to manage competition with the PRC responsibly,” while also “seeking to work with the PRC in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.” Crucially, the strategy fails to articulate exactly what balance the White House will strike between competition and cooperation, continuing the failure of previous administrations to make the “hard choices” necessary to formulate an effective strategy. Will President Joe Biden focus on “extreme competition” with China, or will he emphasize cooperation on transnational issues like climate change? Will his administration emphasize building an “Indo-Pacific economic framework” or prioritize addressing the regional security concerns presented by China? What level of risk is the administration willing to tolerate in pushing back on malign Chinese activities? What interests are so vital that the United States would potentially jeopardize bilateral cooperation on transnational issues with China to defend? These questions remain unanswered.
The lack of clarity on the balance between competition and cooperation with China applies to the strategy’s approach to broader regional concerns including maritime security and military modernization, concerns that are largely driven by malign Chinese behavior. The strategy states that the United States “will build support for rules-based approaches to the maritime domain, including in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.” But it leaves unanswered whether Washington will prioritize challenging China’s erosion of the regional maritime order through actions like continued freedom-of-navigation operations, or whether it will seek to reduce tensions and risks of escalation through initiatives such as fostering bilateral or multilateral maritime “code of conduct” agreements.
In the military sphere, the strategy identifies “integrated deterrence” as the key to the Washington’s regional security posture, stating that “the United States is enhancing our capabilities to defend our interests as well as to deter aggression and to counter coercion against U.S. territory and our allies and partners.” Catchy buzzwords like “integrated deterrence” aside, the strategy does nothing to address the Biden administration’s continuing failure to take concrete steps to bolster its force posture in the region. Furthermore, the document does little to address the strategic instability caused by the growing regional arms race, which is driven in part by the Chinese development of advanced technologies including artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, autonomous weapons systems, and advanced space and cyber warfare capabilities. Will the Biden administration prioritize seeking to “win” the arms race or will it seek to foster initiatives to reduce the risks posed by the development of such capabilities?
On Taiwan, the strategy states that the U.S. will work “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.” However, the strategy fails to specify how Washington will maintain peaceful cross-strait relations, particularly when it comes to providing assistance to Taiwan’s security forces. Will the Biden administration continue the Trump administration’s policy of major arms transfers to the self-ruled island, or expand the role of U.S. forces in training Taiwan’s military? The document is unclear.
These are just a few of the document’s shortcomings. A full analysis of the strategy requires a more in-depth examination. However, it can be said that overall, as Jeff M. Smith writes, “on the defining challenge of our time [China], the document is too vague, too indirect… and nearly silent on critical defense and military aspects of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.” Hopefully, upcoming administration documents like National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy address the glaring gaps in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.