Why the Indo-Pacific region matters to the US

In the face of growing security challenges in Europe, it remains to be seen if the US can walk its talk in the Indo-Pacific
Last Updated : 02 March 2022, 06:19 IST
Last Updated : 02 March 2022, 06:19 IST

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While the global attention is fixated on the military crisis in Ukraine, the Biden Administration launched the United States' Indo-Pacific Strategy. The unveiling of the strategy document, along with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to the Western Pacific, for the Quad ministerial meeting in Melbourne (Australia), underscored the continued relevance of the Indo-Pacific in the US global strategic orientation.

Why does the Indo-Pacific region matter for the US? The strategy states that "Indo-Pacific nations are helping to define the very nature of the international order, and US allies and partners around the world have a stake in its outcomes." Therefore, the US has no option but to stay engaged with the region.

The current Indo-Pacific Strategy builds on the National Security Guidance issued by the Biden Administration in March 2021. The strategy document acknowledges the role of the previous two administrations (that of Obama and Trump) in reorienting the American focus towards the region.

The US as an Indo-Pacific power

America considers itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The document underscores the "strategic necessity" of the American role in the region as the Indo-Pacific is "vital to our [American] security and prosperity." The US is focused on strengthening "long term position in and commitment to the Indo-Pacific." The US will pay close attention to the developments in the sub-regions like "Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands." However, the absence of the Western Indian Ocean and East Africa from the document is noteworthy.

The most critical challenge in maintaining the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region is the aggressive behaviour of China, which is belligerently pushing its territorial claims in the maritime as well as in the continental domain.

The strategy notes that China "is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might" to pursue "a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific". China seeks to "become the world's most influential power". Although China's "coercion and aggression spans the globe", according to the strategy, the effects of Chinese behaviour are "most acute in the Indo-Pacific."

The objectives

There are five broad objectives at the heart of the US Indo-Pacific strategy: 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.

The most interesting part of the document is the focus on democratic and plural societies. The US is framing the strategic rivalry with China in ideological terms. To that end, America "will be a partner in strengthening democratic institutions, the rule of law, and accountable democratic governance."

Moreover, the US "will bolster freedom of information and expression and combat foreign interference". It will do so by "supporting investigative journalism, promoting media literacy and pluralistic and independent media, and increasing collaboration to address threats from information manipulation."

It is a necessary yet ambitious (and for some, intrusive) agenda, and the response from the US' close strategic partners on this agenda item will be worth watching. Many countries in the region have taken an authoritarian turn. Therefore, the idea of democracy as a key element in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy will pose difficult questions for them.

The allies

The growing economic clout of China and its strategic consequences for smaller countries of the Indo-Pacific has been a matter of concern. China-funded infrastructure projects and debt obligations undertaken by the recipient countries are leading to the emergence of a debt trap. Therefore, the US declares that "we will work with partners to stand up to economic coercion."

The areas like maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, and the emerging role of critical strategic technologies are focal points for the great power rivalry between the US and China. The US seeks to "build support for an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet." The US understands that its alliances and the network of partnerships are a force multiplier in the region. Therefore, the strategy argues that the US "will support and empower allies and partners as they take on regional leadership roles themselves." The US promises to "work in flexible groupings that pool our collective strength to face up to the defining issues of our time, particularly through the Quad."

The Quad

For India, the strategy has a separate section titled "Support India's Continued Rise and Regional Leadership." The US will continue to build a strategic partnership with India and "work together and through regional groupings to promote stability in South Asia". The focus is to collaborate in newer domains, like health, space, and cyberspace and deepen economic and technology cooperation. The purpose is to "contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific."

The US believes that "India is a like-minded partner and leader" in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. It is "active in and connected to Southeast Asia" and is "a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development."

The Indo-US cooperation is intensifying in the framework of the Quad as well. The strategy document notes that the Quad partners (India, US, Japan, and Australia) will work on critical and emerging technologies. They seek to drive supply-chain cooperation and help in bringing "joint technology deployments, and advancing common technology principles".

In the context of the challenge of climate change, the Quad will build "a green shipping network" and "coordinate the sharing of satellite data to improve maritime domain awareness and climate responses". In a veiled reference to the poor quality of China-built infrastructure, the strategy observes that the Quad members "will cooperate to provide high-standards infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and will work to improve their cyber capacity." The attempt is to counter the growing influence of China.

No choice

The strategy concludes by asserting that America "will not have the luxury of choosing between power politics and combating transnational threats." The US "will rise to our leadership charge on diplomacy, security, economics, climate, pandemic response, and technology."

Through the strategy, Biden Administration has provided a strategic framework that will encompass the US activities in the region. In the face of growing security challenges in Europe (like Russia) and Africa (like terrorism), whether the US can walk the talk in the Indo-Pacific remains to be seen.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 02 March 2022, 06:19 IST

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