February 14, 2022
SINGAPORE – The Biden administration promised to embed the US more deeply in the Indo-Pacific, calling its freedom and openness of utmost importance to American interests, under a long-awaited broad strategy for the region unveiled on Friday (Feb 11).
“We recognise that American interests can only be advanced if we firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen the region itself, alongside our closest allies and partners,” said the strategy document, which comes as President Joe Biden enters his second year in office.
America’s intensifying focus on the region is partly to counter China’s “coercion and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific as Beijing “pursues a sphere of influence” there, said the 12-page document.
“Our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behaviour,” it said, citing among other issues Beijing’s economic coercion of Australia, growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbours in the East and South China seas.
“Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world,” said the report, using the formal name of the People’s Republic of China.
Mr Biden is the third US president in recent decades to promise a greater focus on the region, following former president Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and president Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, both of which had mixed results and were criticised for lacking a broad economic strategy.
The strategy, however, did not address America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega trade deal, which foreign policy watchers say puts it at a disadvantage, with China deepening its trade ties with the region.
Under the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington will launch an economic framework for the region early this year that will “develop new approaches to trade”, craft principles for digital economies and cross-border data flows, and strengthen supply chains.
The strategy also seeks to bolster regional security by strengthening US ties within and beyond the region.
It calls for deepening its treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, and strengthening partnerships with leading regional partners, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.
It will invest more resources and security assistance in the region, including to build maritime capacity, and boost the US Coast Guard presence and cooperation in South-east and South Asia and the Pacific Islands.
The US will also invest in regional groupings, including Asean and the Quad partnership it has with Australia, India and Japan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met his Quad counterparts on Friday during his ongoing Asia-Pacific trip, released a joint statement with them pledging to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific “free from coercion”, in a veiled reference to China’s growing assertiveness.
The strategy also called for bringing Indo-Pacific and European countries together in new ways, such as through the Aukus security pact between Australia, the US and Britain.
It also promised to help with the region’s efforts to combat climate change and recover from the pandemic, among other transnational threats.
A senior administration official told reporters on Friday that the Biden administration was focused on playing a positive role in the region, rather than viewing it solely as an arena for superpower competition.
Said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “This is not our China strategy. This very clearly identifies China as one of the challenges that the region faces… but our China strategy is global in scope. It recognises the Indo-Pacific as a particularly intense region of competition.
He added: “Countries in the region want to see the US continuing to play an important role. They want to continue to see an affirmative US vision for what we are doing that is not couched in suggesting the countries need to take sides.
American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Zack Cooper said the strategy was likely written with South-east Asia in mind.
“It tries to articulate a positive vision for the United States in the region and focuses less on China. I think that’s the right approach,” he told The Straits Times.
“The question, however, is whether the administration will be able to convince regional players that it is willing and able to expend sufficient resources on Asia while it is addressing responsibilities elsewhere,” Dr Cooper added.