|All for the US, nothing for others|
Biden administration's 'Indo-Pacific' strategy is characterized by full-on competition and confrontation and zero cooperation
When Joe Biden came into the White House, he vowed to jettison much of the Donald Trump administration's controversial foreign and domestic policies and steer the United States back to normalcy and decency. However, at least in terms of its China and Indo-Pacific policy, the Biden administration has largely followed the track of the Trump administration. The Biden administration views China as the US' No 1 strategic competitor, pursues an Indo-Pacific strategy based on US-China strategic competition, and has taken a series of steps to contain and encircle China in the Indo-Pacific in particular and around the world in general.
Politically, the Biden administration sensationalizes the institutional and even ideological competition and confrontation between China and the US, casts it in terms of authoritarianism versus democracy, and vows to make democracy deliver and prevail in the competition.
Economically, the Biden administration has put forward the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity in the hope of neutralizing China's growing economic influence and shoring up support for the US in the region. The Biden administration realizes that it's not enough just to name and shame China's economic initiative and influence, the US has to offer something concrete. With the IPEF, which emphasizes the US-style rules and high standards in trade, infrastructure, and digital economy, decarbonization and clean infrastructure, and exclusive supply chains and high-tech groups, the Biden administration hopes to forge the missing links in its competition with China and beat China in its own advantageous areas.
With regard to security, the Biden administration foregoes much of the Trump administration's ally bashing approach and has put the unity of allies and partners at the center of its security competition with China. The Biden administration has not only declared its allies and partners to be indispensable strategic assets of the US, and taken measures to enhance their relations, it has also upgraded and formed new mini-lateral security groups.
In March 2021, less than two months into the Biden administration, Biden upgraded the Quad Security Dialogue among the US, Japan, India, and Australia, from ministerial level to summit level and held its first ever virtual leaders' summit. In September, the Quad held its first in-person leaders' summit in Washington to coordinate their positions and policy aiming at forming a united front against China in the Indo-Pacific. In February 2022, when the Biden administration published its Indo-Pacific strategy, it declared that the Quad will be the premier grouping in the Indo-Pacific, making it a de facto strategic consultation platform and premier tool for implementing the US' Indo-Pacific strategy.
In September 2021, the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia initiated an AUKUS security partnership. Superficially, the AUKUS was formed in order that the US and the UK can provide nuclear know-how to Australia to help the latter to build and have nuclear-powered submarine. But in view of Australia's long-held position on nuclear weapons, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' qualms about Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarine technology, and Australia's increasingly tense relations with China, it speaks volumes about the intention and future trajectory of the AUKUS. It is a quasialliance to contain China's maritime power and influence in the Indo-Pacific on top of the traditional hub and spoke alliance system.
In addition, the Biden administration has also toughened its rhetoric on the Taiwan question and the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes. It has increased its arms sales, officials visits and political support to China's Taiwan. In the latest example, Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker and the US' third-highest ranking leader, visited Taipei to show Washington's support despite China's strong opposition, which has provoked China and the US into the worst confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
This China-centered zero-sum Indo-Pacific strategy, if implemented fully, will cast a long shadow over the regional political, economic, and security order.
Politically, it will probably create a fault line in the Indo-Pacific. Since the end of the Cold War, East Asia has remained relatively stable, free of great power competition. This favorable environment has made it possible the economic miracle of East Asia, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. However, with the US engaged in new great power competition and trying to force regional countries to choose sides between the US and China, it is creating a political fault line, if not a new Cold War, in Asia.
Economically, it is creating parallel economic groups and camps and disrupting the regional integration process. The Biden administration knows that it cannot compete with China dollar for dollar, nor can it do it by only naming and shaming China. Instead, it focuses on where it has comparative advantages. By initiating the IPEF, emphasizing the market rules, high standards, and economic security, it is weaponizing economic relations, disrupting the regional economic integration process, and creating exclusive supply chains, and technological, and economic groups to its advantages.
In security terms, the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy and its implementation have greatly increased regional security risks. For one thing, the strengthening of alliances, the upgrading of the Quad, and the establishing of AUKUS are creating a Cold War-like security camps and increasing China's sense of encirclement. For another, the US close-in surveillance in the South China Sea, the frequent passage of US naval vessels through the Taiwan Straits, and high-profile US officials' visits to China's Taiwan are eroding whatever was left of the little strategic trust between China and the US, and greatly increased the possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment. In time of crisis, this can be catastrophic between major nuclear powers.
Biden has said time again the US is not interested in starting a new Cold War with China, does not seek to contain China, and instead wants to establish guardrails to safeguard US-China relations. However, from what it has done so far in terms of its Indo-Pacific strategy, it is increasingly driving China-US relations toward the direction of fierce competition and confrontation, if not a new Cold War. It has failed to emerge from the swamp the Trump administration left behind.
The author is a professor of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.