Feb 8, 2021 - World

Interview: Former NSC director Lisa Curtis on America's Indo-Pacific strategy

Photo illustration of Lisa Curtis and a map of the Indo-Pacific

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

In her first interview since leaving the National Security Council, where she served from 2017 to 2021 as senior director for South and Central Asia, Lisa Curtis tells Axios that the Biden administration should put democracy promotion high on its agenda in the Indo-Pacific.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has made the Indo-Pacific a top focus of its newly formed National Security Council. That's a continuation from the Trump administration in terms of emphasis, if not necessarily in terms of strategy.

Driving the news: Curtis is now leading the Center for a New American Security's new Indo-Pacific Security Program, which just launched on Feb. 8.

  • “The Indo-Pacific has emerged as the world’s economic and geopolitical center of gravity,” said CNAS CEO Richard Fontaine.

Curtis' recommendations for the Biden administration:

  1. Counter the narrative that Chinese regional domination is inevitable.
  2. Build up alliances and partnerships in the region.
  3. Balance the U.S. need to protect democracy, as some countries in the region such as Sri Lanka experience backsliding, while avoiding ceding strategic leverage and space to China.
  4. Develop tools beyond sanctions for promoting democracy. "Relying solely on sanctioning foreign individuals became a blunt instrument and didn’t further our broader agenda," said Curtis.

More from the interview

On the Quad, a military partnership between Japan, Australia, India and the U.S.:

  • "The Quad should not only focus just on security issues, but should also focus on things like the economic recovery post-pandemic. The countries have already started coordinating on how we respond to the economic problems that have arisen because of COVID, so that the countries have options and alternatives rather than relying just on China."
  • "What's happening in Burma is an opportunity where the Quad countries should be coordinating their approach. We’re talking about four countries that are influential democracies. Together they can develop a strategy."
  • The Trump administration elevated the Quad by holding two Quad meetings at the secretarial level, one at the deputy level, and six at the assistant secretary level, said Curtis, demonstrating a strong U.S. commitment to the partnership.

On India:

  • "I think the China-India border crisis demonstrated to India that the U.S. is a reliable partner. The U.S. expedited delivery of cold weather gear to Indian forces along the disputed border for the winter. We also delivered 2 MQ-9 armed predators to India. We stood with India as it faced this aggression along its borders. This demonstrated that the U.S. was reliable. In a way, China’s own aggressive behavior reinforced for India the need to build the U.S.-India relationship and move forward with Quad engagement."

Worth noting: In a Feb. 8 phone call between the two leaders, President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi "agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad," according to a White House readout of the call.

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