- The Biden administration’s soon to be released Indo-Pacific strategy will be the third iteration of US strategy for the region, following President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. During both the Obama and Trump administrations, there was increased attention to the region, but the results were uneven.
- For all the differences between the three administrations, there is broad consistency on certain key features of their Indo-Pacific strategies. Given the global nature of American interests, each administration consistently struggled to prioritise the region as the primary theatre of US engagement.
- Ranging from the renewed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific at the US National Security Council to the significant uptick in meetings with allies and partners in the region, the Biden administration visibly demonstrated its commitment to the region during its first year.
- The emerging contours of Biden’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific suggest that it will focus on: support for an Indo-Pacific that is free and open at the individual, national and regional levels; stronger connections within, across, and beyond the region; increased prosperity and resilience for the region; and a security framework that prioritises integrated deterrence over confrontation and conflict.
- For close allies like Australia, a number of questions — including the US administration’s regional economic agenda and next steps in the AUKUS arrangement — will remain unanswered even after the regional strategy is released.
The Biden administration is preparing to release its official Indo-Pacific strategy this month. This will not be the first attempt to frame a US strategy for this critical region. The Trump administration released its Indo-Pacific strategy, which was declassified in the waning days of his presidency, and before that Barack Obama attempted a US foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia. As different as these administrations were in outlook and temperament, there was consistency on certain key features of their policies towards the region, including an understanding of the region’s relative importance, an emphasis on allies and partners, and the overall goal of keeping the region free from coercion and open to trade, investment and ideas. A persistent critique has been the lack of a comprehensive economic approach to the region.
Despite common themes, each successive US administration adjusted its approach to the Indo-Pacific in different ways — by varying the geographical scope of the region, by alternating between unilateral and multilateral efforts, or by privileging the diplomatic, technological, economic or military aspects of US regional engagement. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy will signal their preferred approach to many of these issues, even though the strategy is unlikely, on its own, to provide definitive answers to Washington’s overall plans for the Indo-Pacific region.
This brief will look back at what has happened since President Obama first announced the “pivot to Asia” 10 years ago in Canberra,1 examine the emerging contours of Biden’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and outline what outstanding questions have yet to be addressed.
The Obama administration: The pivot to Asia 1.0
Barack Obama assumed office in 2009 believing that US engagement in the Middle East occupied too central a role in US strategy, and that engagement with Asia was underweighted. Obama declared Asia would be a priority, and in a 2009 speech2 referred to himself as the “first Pacific president.” In a 2011 article,3 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote “the Asia-Pacific has become a driver of global politics.” And, in November of that year, while standing in front of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, President Obama announced4 his intention to pivot US resources, investments and focus to the Asia-Pacific region. “Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region,” he stated, declaring that “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” The “pivot” label proved unsettling to European partners, and was later branded the “rebalance.”
While Washington was clearly more engaged with the region, the rebalance of military assets was ultimately hampered by decreasing military budgets, ongoing wars across the Middle East, and increasing tensions with Russia.
Regardless of the name, the Obama administration took significant steps to strengthen the US presence in and commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama became the first US president to attend the East Asia Summit,5 and promoted increased trilateral cooperation6 between the United States, Japan and South Korea. The US military began a rotational deployment of US Marines7 in Darwin, Australia, and began a redeployment of 60 per cent of the US Navy’s fleet to the Pacific.8 The US government also supported Southeast Asian nations’ efforts to address common maritime challenges,9 promoted10 Myanmar’s fleeting transition to a democracy, and supported the Philippines’11 case against China in the South China Sea. Economically, the administration promoted stronger trade and investment through the Trans-Pacific Partnership12 (TPP) and negotiated a bilateral trade deal with South Korea.13
Yet while Washington was clearly more engaged with the region, the rebalance of military assets was ultimately hampered by decreasing military budgets, ongoing wars across the Middle East, and increasing tensions with Russia. And, despite having negotiated a complex and ambitious multilateral trade deal in the TPP, Obama was unable to pass it before he left office and both presidential candidates running to succeed him — Donald Trump14 and Hillary Clinton15 — stated that they were not in favour of the TPP as it was constituted.
The Trump administration and the Indo-Pacific
The Trump years were mixed for the Indo-Pacific region. While Trump maintained a high level of interest in some specific issues in the region — such as the tantalising idea that he could bring about some kind of deal16 with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un — he was largely disengaged and uninterested in developing or deploying an Indo-Pacific strategy. On the economic side, he decided to withdraw from the TPP,17 thereby undermining a crucial opportunity to counter some of China’s economic pressure tactics in Southeast Asia and throughout the region.
Beginning in 2018, the Trump administration began to direct its attention and ire towards China, resulting in a rise in tensions on the military front, but also the beginning of a campaign of sanctions and tariffs against Beijing, which quickly expanded to become the central front in Washington’s “trade war”18 with China. While some US allies in the region undoubtedly welcomed Washington’s hawkish turn, its lack of a strategic approach to the problem resulted in confusion and missed opportunities. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy19 (NSS) in December 2017 and National Defence Strategy20 (NDS) in January 2018, as well as the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific21 (SFIP) that was declassified in the waning days of his presidency, revealed a thoughtful framework for a meaningful regional strategy that was ultimately hampered by Trump’s erratic and inconsistent approach to negotiations and policy.
The legacy of the Trump years was that the United States viewed the Indo-Pacific region more broadly, commenced an increased focus on the Quad, deepened cooperation with India, and undertook a concerted effort to resist Beijing’s acts of economic, political and military coercion. However, Trump’s approach meant that there had been no concerted effort towards democracy and human rights promotion in the region, and allies were scarred by attacks that seemed to be just as frequently directed at them as towards US adversaries. And unquestionably, the credibility and staying power of the United States in the region suddenly became much less certain.
Biden and the Indo-Pacific thus far
Joe Biden campaigned22 on putting allies at the centre of US foreign policy and rebuilding US strength at home while seeking more unity with others in its approach to China. This meant a recommitment to multilateral engagement, a renewed focus on Southeast Asia, and a major push to rebuild ties with traditional allies. While Biden critiqued his predecessor in his approach, he did not rule out adopting some of his Indo-Pacific strategy. Typical of the new administration’s thinking was US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments23 at his confirmation hearing that “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China. I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one and I think that is actually helpful to our foreign policy.”
At his confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken told the Senate there was “no doubt” China posed the most significant challenge to the United States of any nation. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated24 that “Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort. And I see China, in particular, as the pacing challenge for the Department [of Defense].” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said25 the United States needed to “impose costs for what China is doing” in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And during his confirmation hearing, CIA Director Bill Burns said26 that “an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.” As if to underscore all of this, in his February 2021 speech to the Munich Security Conference, President Biden said,27 “we must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China…. Competition with China is going to be stiff. That’s what I expect, and that’s what I welcome.”
The rhetoric of prioritising China as the central challenge, orienting US defence and foreign policy around it, and taking a tougher line emerged as the early themes of the Biden administration. This inclination had several bureaucratic and policy implications, including restructuring28 the National Security Council (NSC) to give it much more focus on the Indo-Pacific and competitive elements of US strategy; early staffing of departments and agencies with Asia specialists;29 rejoining30 international institutions such as the World Health Organization; creating new positions on technology, international economics and competitiveness on the National Security Council;31 and making it clear that Washington viewed its relationship with China primarily through the lens of competition.32 This impetus was reinforced with the March 2021 “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,”33 that identified China as a “sustained challenge” to the stable and open international system and asserted that prevailing “in strategic competition with China or any other nation,” was its primary objective.
The administration elevated the importance of the Quad, increased the frequency with which it met, and used it as a vehicle to provide a positive vision for what the four countries could offer the region — in vaccine distribution, climate policies and pooling resources for infrastructure projects.
The Biden administration set to work on this agenda early. In addition to undertaking several administration-wide and department-specific reviews of US policy on the Indo-Pacific region, the president’s early meetings with foreign leaders placed a heavy emphasis on the region. Meeting with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India34 in March 2021, Biden pledged35 his commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region that could deliver practical results to pressing problems. The administration elevated the importance of the Quad, increased the frequency with which it met, and used it as a vehicle to provide a positive vision for what the four countries could offer the region — in vaccine distribution, climate policies and pooling resources for infrastructure projects. The administration also quickly took on previously stalled status of forces negotiations with Japan36 and South Korea,37 and, after a slower start engaging Southeast Asia, ramped up cabinet and sub-cabinet travel to the region, and restored the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement.38 It sharpened its focus on Taiwan and worked with the Europeans to establish a Trade and Technology Council39 that can align approaches on emerging technology and forge a more unified approach to Beijing’s non-market practices. It held a democracy summit40 in December 2021, sanctioned41 dozens of Chinese entities and officials accused of human rights abuses, and led a diplomatic boycott42 of Beijing’s Olympic Games in an effort to call attention to the egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang. And, in September 2021, the administration announced the creation of AUKUS43 — a trilateral collaboration between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States intended to provide Australia with more advanced defence capabilities, including nuclear-powered submarines.
The Biden administration has had its fair share of setbacks affecting this agenda. The administration has been slow to nominate US ambassadors to the region,44 and the Senate has been even slower on confirming them. While the administration passed major legislation to fight COVID and finance a major infrastructure build, other legislation — including funding for various economic, foreign policy and defensive initiatives specifically aimed at better competing with China — has stalled in Congress.45 While President Biden promised to deliver an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework46 in 2022, the United States has chosen to stand outside the region’s evolving economic arrangements — at this point, neither the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) nor the revamped TPP include the United States. And, despite a clear focus on the importance of developing and prioritising a US strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, ongoing disruptions — particularly the coronavirus pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine — have shifted time and focus away from doing so.
Broad contours of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy
As the Biden administration transitions into its second year, its Indo-Pacific efforts will come into sharper focus with the public release of several major strategic documents. Among these are the US National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy — both of which will address US global strategy. The administration has also announced plans to release an Indo-Pacific strategy that more narrowly focuses on its regional approach.
While the White House continues to fine-tune its strategy, the broad contours of its approach were laid out during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s 14 December 2021 speech47 on “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” in Jakarta, Indonesia. Beyond declarations that the United States has always been a country anchored in the Indo-Pacific region, and assertions that the Indo-Pacific region matters more than any other region to shaping “the trajectory of the world in the 21st century,” Blinken pointed to the centrality of the region to US strategic thinking. For the rest of the speech, Blinken laid out five main pillars of US efforts in the region.
The Biden administration’s retention of the broader geographical scope of the region, as well as the primary objective of furthering a region free from coercion, and open to others, is noteworthy. This vocabulary is not new, but the continuity from Trump to Biden suggests that this will be the framing, the operating concept and the strategic geography moving forward.
The first was a commitment to advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration’s retention of the broader geographical scope of the region, as well as the primary objective of furthering a region free from coercion, and open to others, is noteworthy. This vocabulary is not new, but the continuity from Trump to Biden suggests that this will be the framing, the operating concept and the strategic geography moving forward. In his framing, the concept of “free and open” is meant to operate at the individual, national and regional levels — promoting individual liberties, sovereign independence and regional transparency. The framing is affirmative but is also meant to offer an alternative to China’s regional engagement — which has been criticised for being authoritarian, non-transparent and hierarchical. This is also a framing supportive of policy initiatives encouraging transparency and anti-corruption efforts, greater investments into developing secure telecommunications architecture and promoting freedom of navigation in the region and across its maritime littorals.
The second line of effort is to encourage stronger connections within, across and beyond the region. This echoes Jake Sullivan, who called for building48 “a latticework of alliances and partnerships,” that will not only revitalise old partnerships but build new ones. The logic is to build stronger, more resilient and more informal connections that can meet emerging challenges better — and faster — and with more practical results. This means renewing US engagement with ASEAN — including by inviting ASEAN leaders to the United States this coming year. It also means enhancing key bilateral relationships, working across the series of trilateral arrangements the United States participates in, and further deepening the agenda of multilateral engagement with such arrangements as the Quad and furthering European engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
Blinken also laid out an agenda for promoting prosperity across the region, pointing to the importance of building supply chain security, and the level of US direct investment into the region. He noted that Washington is particularly focused on the digital economy — highlighting the potential for e-commerce deals in the region and the drive to work with key partners to shape the rules of the road on key issues such as data privacy and cyber security. The administration also has made building resilience in the Indo-Pacific a priority, with an emphasis on accelerating its vaccine distribution, investing more in regional public health programs and advancing clean energy initiatives across the region.
While many, including Beijing, focus most on the US security ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, the topic of security received the least amount of attention in Secretary Blinken’s speech. Blinken said that the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy will work to bolster regional security and cited the Pentagon’s efforts on integrated deterrence. He noted the “evolving” nature of contemporary challenges from China and North Korea and discussed the need to do more to counter violent extremism and halt illegal fishing. Secretary Blinken emphasised that Washington was working hard to ensure appropriate guardrails are put around its competition with Beijing, lest competition veers into conflict. More interesting was what was left unsaid — particularly in regard to ongoing efforts to realign US force posture across the region, increase security cooperation with its partners and enhance the defence capabilities of its closest allies.
Some of these pillars remain more aspirational than others, but the main lines of effort — working through multilateral institutions, reinforcing ties with key partners, and setting forth an affirmative agenda to promote prosperity, connectivity, resilience and security — will be the animating features of its approach. This is also a message deliberately calibrated to appeal to a Southeast Asian audience.
Key takeaways for Australia
The soon to be released Indo-Pacific strategy, previewed by the US Secretary of State, is likely to further flesh out this vision. For allies such as Australia, there are several noteworthy features of Washington’s emerging approach, several questions that the release of these public statements of strategic intent will prompt, and a few key areas for action.
Less emphasis on security and China
This strategy will put sustainability, climate protection, multilateral engagement and the promotion of an open and connected region at its core. It is also likely to deemphasise China, focusing instead on the Indo-Pacific region itself and attempting to avoid framing US engagement with the region as predicated on accelerating competition with Beijing, particularly in the defensive realm. In so doing, the administration will downplay the more hard-edged elements of its regional strategy, betting that doing so will support engagements with regional actors not willing to publicly countenance a more assertive response to China’s increasing regional assertiveness.
Speaking softly to bolster a bigger multilateral stick
During Trump’s presidency, many voices across the Indo-Pacific pointed out that his administration’s main strategic documents had the virtue of being explicit in their designation of China, and other authoritarian actors, as the primary source of instability and the drivers of international instability. Those same voices added that what Washington had gained in clarity, it had lost in subtlety, making it harder to compete effectively in key regions. The approach previewed by Blinken is an attempt to reverse that dynamic to a certain degree. This might prove a more useful approach, particularly in Southeast Asia. But it will also heighten concerns that the Biden administration has not yet defined the ultimate objective of its competition with China, nor resourced the competitive aspects of its strategy sufficiently.
Building new structures of allies and partners
Another major element of the emerging strategy is the Biden administration desire to increase opportunities for like-minded nations to work together in creative structures likely to reinforce regional security and deter Beijing efforts to create a regional sphere of influence. Whether framed positively, defensively or pragmatically, that is the clear intent behind initiatives ranging from the Quad to AUKUS. Such an approach has run through the administration’s statements and actions and will likely inform not only its major statements of strategy but also its attempts to integrate allied and partner efforts across the Indo-Pacific region.
Delivering a regional economic agenda
Alongside its Indo-Pacific strategy, the Biden administration will soon be releasing its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which should provide an opportunity to broaden its regional economic engagement, particularly around the digital economy. But, as the region forges ahead with new economic arrangements without US involvement, the United States increasingly risks being left out of the main conversation. Despite broad public support for trade that spans the political spectrum, neither Republican nor Democratic leadership has chosen to make the case that trade is good for the economy — and necessary for US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The Framework will be welcome, but endemic US political ambivalence towards trade will also raise uncomfortable questions about how Washington can advance a strategy that does not forefront economic engagement with the region.
An agenda for the Australia-US alliance
Lastly, there are particular areas of focus relevant to the Australian-US alliance. The first lies in helping to uphold a positive vision for the region, that promotes a region free from coercion, advances rules that apply to all states, champions transparency and works to eliminate corruption. This second area is in supporting regional resilience on everything from dealing with the pandemic to mitigating the effects of climate change to building more secure supply chains on critical materials. Enhancing deterrence in order to provide better security from the predatory actions of China and others is another area that will see movement in the coming year. Much attention has focused on AUKUS and how quickly it can move forward with a viable plan for enhancing Australia’s advanced military capabilities. That work will proceed, but just as important are some of the posture initiatives under consideration for augmenting US forward presence in the region, and increasing the pace of military exercises between Australia, the United States and others. Finally, Washington will be keenly interested in seeing the continued leadership of Australia in the Pacific.
The crisis now unfolding from Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine will test whether the Bidden administration can maintain its stated desire to focus on the Indo-Pacific. And, even if it does, the strategic documents explaining the Biden administration’s approach, laying out how it fits within US global responsibilities, and identifying the resources it will bring to bear will of course not provide full answers to the Biden administration’s approach to the region as strategy is equal parts conception and follow through. Questions surrounding the degree to which crises elsewhere shift US priorities, how the administration chooses to support democracy and human rights, whether Washington has the capacity for engaging in multilateral trade, which industries it chooses to invest in, what type of military modernisation it pursues, and how it empowers allies — particularly in areas surrounding the transfer of sensitive technologies — will provide better answers to how enduring the US shift to the Indo-Pacific proves.