The USA’s long-awaited strategy for the Indo-Pacific (I-P) was released on the 11th of February (Executive Office of the President 2022), it contains few surprises. The stated goal is to work toward a free, open, connected, secure, and resilient region by anchoring the United States’ interests and values more firmly within it. This is set within the context of the USA as an Indo-Pacific power, the importance of the region economically and strategically to the USA, and the global system. The I-P is said to:
face mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC. The PRC 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 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.
Our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.
The USA’s I-P strategy must be seen as a part of the wider and increasingly ideological / value-based conflict with China. Indeed, shared interests and values and ‘like-minded partners’ are emphasized throughout. Though it must be stressed that there is none of the choosing of sides or exhortations to confront China that was so evident under the Trump administration. However, the emphasis on strengthening bilateral defense and security – including the USA’s direct military presence, maintenance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), increased high-quality infrastructure provision, including 5G, diversity of providers and need for transparency, and building the capacities of regional partners and allies, leaves little doubt that the objective is to contain and push back against China.
While the extent of reference to infrastructure provision and the role of the USA’s Build Back Better World, suggests a targeting of the Chinese BRI, though this is never mentioned (see further comment below). While overall, the need for the USA to compete with China and manage that competition ‘responsibly’ is stressed, there is a nod towards seeking to cooperate on such issues as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. While it is possible to see this as indicative of a softening of the US approach to China, there is little else to suggest this in the document, rather it would seem to be a softer approach to partners and prospective partners in Asia in reinforcing the USA’s conflict with China.
There are two further distinctive features of the document. Firstly, the emphasis on working with partners outside of the region, particularly Europe – building bridges between the I-P and the Europe-Atlantic – with suggestions of larger roles in the I-P for NATO and the EU which, it is asserted, have begun to pivot towards ASEAN, India and Japan. There is also a specific reference to the EU Gateway as an addition to USA-approved sources of infrastructure funding. Secondly, there is recognition of the importance and centrality of ASEAN, the need for the USA to develop close relations, with nods towards a commitment to the East Asian Summit ASEAN Regional Forum, while more generally ‘seeking new ministerial-level engagement and supporting existing institutions’.
While the recognition of the importance of ASEAN is an important step, we are told that it needs to be ‘empowered’ to increase cooperation with India, and the potential for cooperation with the Quad (see below) will be ‘investigated’– not clear what ASEAN members will the read into any of this. But questions of ASEAN strategy, internal dynamics, relations with China, and modes of operation are side-stepped. Yet the deeply embedded ‘ASEAN Way’ of dialogue, consultation, consensus and non-interference has been proved remarkably robust means of managing East Asia’s changing security landscape (Intal 2017). As have the principles of non-interference and neutrality enshrined in its Zone of Peace and Neutrality (ZOPAN), to which China is a signatory.
The only other regional institutions mentioned are APEC (which the USA hosts during 2023) and AUKUS – in the context of bringing European and I-P partners together (does this include the French?) and the supplying of nuclear submarines to the Australian Navy as rapidly as possible.
The Quad is given particular prominence – it is significant that the I-P Strategy was released on the day of the Melbourne Quad meeting (11 February 2022). The Quad seems to be envisaged as the key platform for furthering the USA’s I-P agenda (Mishra and Saha 2022). It will be strengthened as a ‘premier regional grouping’ with a wide range of roles, including health security, climate change, critical and emerging technology, driving value chain cooperation, infrastructure, cyber, education, green shipping, and clean energy, with a comment that its cooperation with ASEAN will be investigated.
It should be stressed that the Quad has limited support, not least amongst ASEAN members (Stromseth 2021) and there are a very large number of other regional bodies, many related to ASEAN and ASEAN+3 (which is not mentioned), most with significant Chinese involvement, such as the CMIM, AMRO, and RCEP. Hence, it is far from clear how many I-P countries will be prepared to support the US agenda for the Quad going forward– the I-P strategy implicitly assumes the solidarity of the other Quad members – Australia, India and Japan.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the USA’s concerns over values and rights are not necessarily anywhere near the top of Asian agendas, nor for most would the China ‘threat’ rank above such issues as climate change, food prices, energy security and recovery from the Covid 19 pandemic. The emphasis on ‘high quality’ trade, standards and infrastructure investment, is unlikely to resonate with countries that need rapid returns on trade arrangements and very immediate improvements in infrastructure.
Given the above, it is not immediately clear what the incentives are for countries to line up more fully, with the USA, particularly at the expense of their relations with China. While commitments to increased infrastructure investment will be welcomed, given the level of need, there is a concern that this will be directed at competing with China’s already extensive and widely embedded BRI, rather than complementing this initiative. Certainly, there is nothing on access to US markets or direct US involvement in the existing and rapidly developing regional trade arrangements such as RCEP and CPTPP.
The USA’s envisaged ‘security’ framework for the I-P region is essentially a defensive framework against China. Here there is a real danger that the USA is repeating the mistakes that were made in Europe in the early post-Cold War period. That is, setting up a framework that excluded the most powerful military power in the region, erecting an armed defense system against it, and labelling it a regional security system
In many ways the USA’s present approach to China is far more disturbing on three counts: Firstly, China is not only the I-P’s largest military power it is also the world’s second largest and perhaps most dynamic economy, that is deeply embedded in the global system and, unlike post-Cold War Russia, does have the potential to seriously challenge the USA in economic, technological and, but much further down the line – military spheres.
Secondly, because of the deep-rooted ideological/values base to the division between the two powers, which requires understanding and compromise, not ideological confrontation.
Thirdly, because, unfortunately, the ill-considered narrative of the China threat to the USA, its global position, the rule-based international order and liberal democracy, enjoys both cross-party support in the USA, and increasingly amongst some of its Western partners and allies, not least the UK.
Undoubtedly this has been boosted in the wake of the Russia invasion of Ukraine, which has also rehabilitated the power of the USA to marshal significant international support for its views and policies. Though it should be stressed that this is far less evident outside of the pro-Western advanced economies, including much of I-P.
Executive Office of the President (2022) ‘The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States’, The White House, Washington DC, February 2022, accessed on 25 February 2022 from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf
Garcia, Z. (2022) ‘What the US Indo-Pacific strategy is missing’, The Diplomat, 22 March, retrieved on 27 March from: https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/what-the-us-indo-pacific-strategy-is-missing/
Intal, P. (2017) ‘The institutions behind East Asia’s transformation’, East Asia Forum, 5 March, retrieved on 20 March 2022 from: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/03/05/the-institutions-behind-east-asias-transformation/
Mishra, V. and Saha, P. (2022) ‘Decoding the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’, Observer Research Foundation, 19 February, retrieved on 20 February from: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/decoding-the-biden-administrations-indo-pacific-strategy/
Stromseth, J. (2021) ‘ASEAN and the QUAD: Strategic impasse or avenue for cooperation?’, Brookings, 23 September 2021, retrieved on 12 October 2021 from: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/09/23/asean-and-the-quad-strategic-impasse-or-avenue-for-cooperation/
 This refers to Build Act 2019 created IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation) which has links with USA’s Blue Network Dot – set up in November 2019 (also involves Australia and Japan and will certify the standards of infrastructure projects in Asia, Oceana and the Americas – https://www.state.gov/blue-dot-network/), and the ADB linked PRIF (Pacific Regional Infrastructure Facility – https://www.theprif.org) set up in October 2019.
 The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Australia, India, japan and the USA.
 Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation, ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
 As Garcia (2022) has commented: while ‘the promotion of democracy, good governance, rule of law, and strategic partnerships and alliances continues to dominate the [USA’s] normative agenda for region…. the administration will have to consider two important factors: the degree to which countries in the region share these norms and whether they share similar interpretations of these norms. In both areas, there is likely to be friction.’
 Comprehensive and Progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.