The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy misses the mark by failing to account for the region’s dynamics and complexity. Since the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” the U.S. has increasingly expanded its geographic vision of the Asia-Pacific to incorporate the Indian Ocean region. However, this reframing of the Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific is undermined by policies that exhibit a contradictory logic. On one hand, it recognizes the political, economic, and social dynamics that increasingly tie the polities of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which has turned the region into the driver of the global economy. On the other hand, U.S. strategy and policy toward the region rely on decades-old assumptions about trade, norms, and regional politics that are unsuited for today’s environment.
In other words, the reality of the region’s plurality and transformation is clashing with Washington’s status quo politics. This contradiction needs to be accounted for as the Biden administration pursues deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific, particularly because it produces tensions in vital policy areas.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently recognized during a speech in Jakarta in December, the Indo-Pacific is the fastest growing region in the world, accounting for two-thirds of global growth in the last five years. Despite this, the administration’s strategy lacks a genuine trade policy for the region. Instead, it has repackaged existing programs on supply chain resiliency, clean energy, and infrastructure. While these are certainly important areas of economic cooperation, this strategy fails to account for regional economic trends – particularly the fact that in the last two decades the region has increasingly become economically integrated through a series of free trade agreements (FTAs), several of which incorporate China but not the United States. As a result, the U.S. economic position in the region has receded over the past decade.
These FTAs play an important role in standard-setting across various sectors. Given the market size of China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), standards developed among these actors are likely to dominate key areas of emerging technologies and services. The United States’ lack of participation in these regional FTAs means that the Indo-Pacific will increasingly set standards without Washington having a voice in the decision-making process. Furthermore, the absence of U.S. membership in key free trade blocs in the region, such as RCEP and CPTPP, is likely to affect market access over time. Collectively, these two dynamics will reduce the competitiveness of U.S. firms.
Another tension that emerges in the strategy involves the question of norms. So far, there seems to be little indication that the Biden administration has significantly deviated from the normative underpinnings of his predecessor’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific white papers. In essence, the promotion of democracy, good governance, rule of law, and strategic partnerships and alliances continues to dominate the normative agenda for region. While these are laudable goals, the administration will have to consider two important factors: the degree to which countries in the region share these norms and whether they share similar interpretations of these norms. In both areas, there is likely to be friction.
On the first question, many Indo-Pacific countries appear to agree with the administration’s view of norms. However, there is no denying that the success of any U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will need to rely on the cooperation of states that may not necessarily share its views. Even those that are likely to be attracted to these values remain staunchly protective of their sovereignty and perceive outside influence as interference in their internal affairs. This tension is something that Beijing has capitalized on through its promotion of non-interference. Consequently, the United States risks alienating potential partners if its normative aims are not flexible enough to account for the plurality of the region.
The challenge over norms is compounded by divergent interpretations. For example, while members of the Quad and ASEAN have voiced support for freedom of navigation and share the perception that China poses a threat to it, several states in these groups – including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others – have different interpretations of the norm. These differences are particularly prescient regarding key components of freedom of navigation such as innocent passage of military vessels and surveillance operations in Exclusive Economic Zones. In some regards, these countries’ interpretations align more closely with those of China. Furthermore, while discussions of freedom of navigation often refer to possible threats to the flow of maritime trade, there is no evidence that China has impeded this flow or plans to do so given its reliance on sea lanes across the region.
Finally, the strategy fails to account for divergent interpretations of the geographic boundaries of the Indo-Pacific. This is an overlooked but crucial point, given that states formulate policies regarding the prioritization of security partners and the allocation of resources, as well as the membership and agenda of regional institutions, based on how they frame regional spaces. For example, among the Quad countries, Japan has the most expansive interpretation of the Indo-Pacific, spanning from East Africa to the U.S. west coast, linking free trade agreements, infrastructure initiatives, development aid, and security agreements integrated within a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy. However, India has the most limited interpretation, focused primarily on the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea. India’s strategy also involves very limited economic and security aims, and lacks a coherent strategy for the region. These differences affect areas in which the Biden administration is likely to find a convergence of interests and likelihood of cooperation as well as areas in which interests diverge and cooperation will be lacking.
If the Indo-Pacific is vital to the security and prosperity of the United States, the Biden administration’s strategy is not up to the task. It suffers from the main shortcomings of its predecessors: failing to account for the dynamism of the region by relying on policies that seek to safeguard a status quo that no longer exists and assuming that U.S. policy preferences are likely to resonate across the region.
As the administration looks to implement and possibly modify the strategy, it would be prudent to account for the dynamism and complexity of the region. While this is certain to complicate strategy formulation and implementation, it is likelier to reflect the realities on the ground. More importantly, it is more likely to improve the ability of the U.S. to compete and secure its interests in the region.