Blind spot in Indo-Pacific vision

Blind spot in Indo-Pacific vision

While many people are keeping their eyes on how the Russia-Ukraine standoff could play out, America is making news in Asia as well with the launch of a new Indo-Pacific strategy.

The announcement on Feb 11 by the Biden administration, though a bit low-key in my view, indicates that the Indo-Pacific region remains the most critical focus of US foreign policy.

The Indo-Pacific region contributes two-thirds of global economic growth while supporting 3 million American jobs and generating nearly US$900 billion in foreign direct investment in the country, a policy paper states. It is home to more than half of the world's people -- and seven of the world's largest militaries.

The US is reaffirming its commitment to Asia, which faltered under the Donald Trump administration, particularly after it withdrew in 2017 from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement it helped craft with 11 other countries.

The new strategy includes an economic framework to cover everything from digital trade, labour and environmental standards, to trade facilitation, supply chain resilience and digital connectivity to increase prosperity in the region.

Specifically, Washington hopes to expand US infrastructure projects in the region, providing "open, resilient, secure, trustworthy tech" including 5G and cyber technologies.

It also aims to advance a "free and open Indo-Pacific", ensuring that countries can independently govern themselves without coercion from other actors, and that international laws pertaining to maritime and air domains are respected.

The Biden administration aims to further strengthen connections with countries in the region -- through Asean or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- and help forge relationships between Indo-Pacific nations and outside organisations like NATO and the European Union.

It also looks to build "resilience" in the face of transnational crises such as climate change and the Covid pandemic. It specifically notes that the US will urge China to "commit to and implement actions" in line with the goal to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Not surprisingly, many aspects of the strategy appear designed to deter China and address its clout, which has grown considerably in the last decade.

"(China) is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world's most influential power," the White House said.

The paper criticises Beijing for "coercion and aggression" and for "undermining human rights and international law". However, its objective "is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favourable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share".

On its own, the US would have difficulty addressing all the factors contributing to regional instability, such as tensions over the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea territorial disputes and North Korea's nuclear programme.

The document therefore stresses cooperation with allies and partners. Utilising a multilayered framework, including alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia, along with the Quad grouping of Japan, the US, Australia and India, is a sensible course of action.

In conclusion, the US will try to build a strategic environment that makes it tougher for China. In that sense, the new strategy is not much different than the Trump administration version released in 2019. At the heart of both documents are concerns about Chinese aggression.

The main differences include a focus on climate change -- an area where the administration wants to work with China -- and a desire to foster post-pandemic economic growth and resiliency.

What I do not like about the strategy is that it seems to force countries in the region to take sides. As America should already know, Asia is a diverse region, and many countries do not want to be forced to choose between the US and China.

If Washington focuses only on strengthening deterrence, gaining widespread support will be difficult. Actually, making steady efforts to improve people's lives is also crucially important.

Also, Asia is eager to see the US return to the transpacific pact, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), to create a free and fair, prosperous Indo-Pacific.

From now on, the focus is on how President Biden and his team translate the Indo-Pacific vision into reality. Whether this strategy will bear success, or become one more symbol of America's perennial inability to focus on the Pacific, remains to be seen.

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