The Joe Biden administration’s ‘new’ Indo-Pacific strategy document contains nothing ‘new’ insofar as the cardinal objective of this strategy is concerned i.e., ‘encircling China.’ Interestingly enough, the strategy has been revealed despite the Biden administration’s various rhetorical claims that the administration is not seeking to build up a global coalition against China, or that they do not want countries to choose between Washington and Beijing. Yet, the core motivation of this ‘new’ strategy is to contest China. As the document highlights, 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.” Therefore, the Biden administration seeks to build a strategic environment “that is maximally favorable to the United States.”The Biden administration aims to do this not just in some specific countries, but in “every corner of the of the region, from northeast Asia and southeast Asia to south Asia and Oceania, including the pacific islands.” Therefore, if there is anything really new in the 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is a more astute resolve to expand the scope of the US’ ‘China encirclement plan.’
This is an expansion that comes at a time when the US has, in the past few years, failed extremely badly to build an effective strategy or narrative against China, let alone consolidating a coalition like the QUAD, involving India, Australia, Japan and the US itself. On the contrary, there is an immensely high level of resilience in Beijing, which very largely surpasses desperate US efforts to defeat it. As China’s Xi stressed at the welcome Banquet for the Winter Olympics, China has just entered the Year of the Tiger according to the lunar calendar. Tiger is a symbol of strength, courage and fearlessness.” Xi’s words unmistakably reflect a strong Chinese defiance against US efforts to create controversies around the games as part of its larger propaganda aimed at demonizing China. The Indo-Pacific strategy does the same at the highest possible level of policy making. The document’s charge-sheet against China reads like this:
“The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior. In the process, the PRC is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”
Consistent demonization of China – and an identical escalation of conflict around Russia – is a part and parcel of the Biden administration’s plan to materialize what Biden hailed as “America is back” only a year ago in his first address as the POTUS to global audience i.e., the US allies. By “America is back” Biden clearly implied that the US will be devoting more and more resources to roll-back, encircle and contain its strategic peers, especially China which it describes as the most serious challenge to the US led international political – and financial – system.
But the Biden administration’s challenge to China in the Indo-Pacific region is highly unlikely to make any meaningful impact. As the said policy document highlights, the major focus of the US policy is containing China in the security issues. The Indo-Pacific strategy is flawed insomuch as it lacks a comprehensive plan of a deep and broad economic partnership plan with the relevant countries. The key question, therefore, is: are countries in the Indo-Pacific region – in particular, the Southeast Asian nations – really interested in building a military alliance with China to tackle any direct military threat from China?
While there are small-scale territorial issues in the South and East China seas, no country in Southeast Asia has ever faced, or is facing, threats of a direct Chinese military attack on their mainland. If this was the case at all, these countries would neither have approved China’s membership of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership , nor would they have decided to deepen their economic ties with Beijing. Therefore, in a region characterized by a very high degree of mutual economic interdependence with China, it is inconceivable why any of these countries would want to make a military alliance with the US – an alliance that could directly undermine treaties like the RCEP.
Although the Biden administration has plans to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 2023 and hold a special summit with Southeast Asian leaders in Washington in the coming months, there is no comprehensive economic and trade strategy, let alone being conceived at the White House.
The shortcoming is strikingly evident to people like Kurt Campbell, the White House Indo-Pacific coordinator, who recently said, while lamenting the absence of economic plan, that “We’ve got to make clear that not only are we deeply engaged diplomatically, militarily, comprehensively, strategically – that we have an open, engaged, optimistic approach to commercial interactions, investment in the Indo Pacific.”
But, the question is: even though there is a realisation about the necessity of offering a comprehensive plan involving a deep and broad economic engagement with the region, why has the US not offered a real economic incentive to countries in the Indo-Pacific to wean them away from China? The answer perhaps lies in the US’ current state of economy, which is facing an almost 10 per cent inflation rate with prospects of worst to yet come in the 40 years. High inflation rate, as reports in the US mainstream media have highlighted, is quite likely to become a major hurdle for the Biden administration to realise – and revive – its US$2 trillion tax and spending package. The US economy is expected to grow at a mediocre level of 3 to 3.5 per cent only, which means the Biden administration’s overall China strategy will continue to lack a comprehensive economic plan and that it will continue to lack any meaningful and attractive option for the Indo-Pacific countries.
Comparing the US’ inflation rate and low economic growth prospects with China’s growth rate – which is projected to between 6 to 8 per cent in 2022 – there is an easy choice for the Southeast Asian nations to make with regards to developing an economic partnership with China than opting a meaningless security alliance with the US.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.