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Scrutinising US Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Hamdan Ahmed

After widening Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) strategic agenda, particularly focusing on limiting China in the Asian-Pacific region, the United States announced the Indo-Pacific Strategy in February 2022. The strategy has set up some ambiguous yet interesting objectives for the Indo-Pacific region, which was a battleground for the US-China economic and strategic competition lately and has now become the construing factor of global politics and strategic alignment.

The US wants to reassert the status quo, which has been shadowed due to the Chinese economic and strategic presence in the region. As the US claims this decade to be decisive in setting the course of the region, Washington aspires that, “The American role in the region must be more effective and enduring than ever.” (US Indo-Pacific Strategy: 2022)

One can understand the desperation of the US policymakers by deep delving into the strategy document. Estranging China from the proposed regional economic understanding to including South Asia in the Indo-Pacific region, the strategy is actually a vitriolic response to the tilt of the balance of power to China in the region.

China has established itself as the chief contributor to the global system and limiting itself in Indo-Pacific. But this dogmatic influence is peeving US policymakers, as the buffer they were enjoying in their strategic decisions has contracted crucially due to increased Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

Biden administration is now seeking a regional response to this shift in the balance of power, by incentivizing allies with increased investments through initiatives like Build Back Better World (B3W) and aligning the strategy with their policy objectives such as endorsing Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy and supporting India’s aspiration for regional leadership.

While referring to the increasing significance of the Indo-pacific, the strategy specifies alliances “particularly the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)” as “increasingly committing” their priorities to the region, (US Indo-Pacific Strategy: 2022), China and Russia in their joint statement issued on 4 February reaffirmed the Chinese claim on the land of Taiwan also denouncing any NATO-themed alliance in Indo-Pacific as a threat to global security. (Official Internet resources of the President of Russia: Feb 2022)

But with the new US strategy formally accepting the interest of NATO, will deter any positive prospects for the region as Chinese belligerence will be highly imperative as seen in the recent Taiwan episode.

Washington has rationalized the involvement of extra-regional powers, which will obviously share the burden of the American ambitions of the balance of power but can also aggravate the security situation in the region. China will have a stronger case now retaliating against the possible U.S backed defence alliance in the region, but with the conflict zone of Taiwan, such an arrangement will be detrimental to regional stability.

“Integrated Deterrence”, a new collective approach proposed by the US, “will be the cornerstone of our approach”. (US Indo-Pacific Strategy: 2022) Biden administration set out an inter-disciplinary plan to counter the Chinese influence, deemed as coercion and aggression.

The US plans to deploy non-military tools along with conventional ones to neutralise the Chinese threat to American interest in the region. This includes using economic restrictions by the American bloc, combining it with cyber deterrence and all possible options to deter any unintended escalation.

This also relieves the US military of the hard job, but why did Washington go for this option? One can argue to limit the exhaustion of funds that were required for strategic balance in Indo-pacific direct them to means of soft power like capacity building or B3W.

Integrated Deterrence, also criticized by many defence analysts, has its own limitations, and especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific, the integration of resources among states against a regional power will be a strenuous task. We have also seen this approach failing in the context of Taiwan when after Nancy Pelosi’s visit China test-launched ballistic missiles over Taipei, for the very first time in history, this was followed by the military drills in the Taiwanese strait as US lawmakers’ group landed in Taiwan on an unannounced trip. Moreover, China retaliated with economic restrictions against Taiwan. This makes Integrated Deterrence questionable, as other states like Malaysia, Thailand, or Vietnam will not be risking their trade with China.

This renewed strategy now includes South Asia in the Indo-Pacific, extending its scope towards the Arabian Sea, which makes QSD far more relevant. The Action Plan also states the support for “India’s continued rise and regional leadership” as one of the core lines. (US Indo-Pacific Strategy: 2022)

But the question arises: is India willing to reciprocate the same compliance to the renewed approach? After the joint statement of 4th February, any effort estranging China in the region will be deemed as inimical to Russian interest. India is also highly dependent on Russia for its military imports such as the S-400 defence system, aircraft, artillery, etc., which also influenced India to desist from its vote against Russia in the UN on the Ukrainian crisis in early March this year. Thus, the success of the new US strategy and that of QSD depend on India’s willingness and the US’s capacity to provide India with its defence needs. But bipartisan support on this matter like that in Indo-Pacific seems fairly difficult, especially with India’s non-aligned diplomatic stance.

Biden Administration is proposing Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to counter Chinese economic influence in the region. But a regional economic system excluding China will be facing sustainability issues. Major Indo-Pacific nations share significant trade volume with China, and also that China is a huge market for their exports. Australia, South Korea, and Japan run a trade surplus with China, to support a huge producer market in lieu of the latter’s import of energy resources and raw materials from these countries. If these countries agree on signing IPEF, China will be retaliating with economic measures directed against them. A glimpse of it was seen when China imposed import bans and higher tariffs on Australian exports in 2021 as a response to Canberra’s criticism. Australia was supplemented with AUKUS but will Biden Administration be able to provide such support across the whole region?

The strategy has provided more legitimacy to the argument of China rising as a global power. The US is more conscious of Chinese supremacy in the Indo-Pacific as they have also reduced strategic involvement in the other regions like withdrawal from Afghanistan, Abraham Accords, and reducing military footprints in the Middle East. But, the policy relies heavily on the extent of commitment promised by other states, as well as obligating the United States to scale up the Strategic and Developmental commitments across the region. The pharisaical approach of Washington can lead to far stretching consequences for regional stability and global security.

Hamdan Ahmad is a student of international relations at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He has a particular interest in foreign policy analysis, current affairs, and the Indo-Pacific region. He can be reached at @diplomaticsheik


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