Feb 11, 2022 - World

Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy homes in on China's "sphere of influence"

Biden and Xi

President Biden at a virtual summit with China's President Xi Jinping. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration on Friday released its official Indo-Pacific strategy, which warns that there is only a narrow window of time remaining to prevent China from transforming the region into its own sphere of influence.

Why it matters: Biden is the third consecutive president to classify Asia as a top geostrategic priority, hoping to complete the "pivot to Asia" initiated under former President Obama.

Zoom in: The document, which is the first regional strategy that the Biden administration has released, cites the "mounting challenges" posed by the rise of China as a key driver of the "intensifying American focus" on the Indo-Pacific.

  • "The PRC [People's Republic of 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."
  • "Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefitted the Indo-Pacific and the world," the document reads.

Details: The strategy outlines fives primary objectives that the U.S. intends to pursue in concert with allies and regional institutions:

  • Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.
  • Build connections within and beyond the region.
  • Drive regional prosperity.
  • Bolster Indo-Pacific security.
  • Build regional resilience to transnational threats.

The big picture: "Our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates," the document states.

  • This represents a continuation of the Trump-era rejection of engagement as a means to make China itself become more open and democratic, recognizing that the best the U.S. can hope for right now is a defense of the regional status quo.
  • The strategy also lists climate change, pandemic recovery and North Korea as other major challenges facing the region.
  • "We will not have the luxury of choosing between power politics and combatting transnational threats; we will rise to our leadership charge on diplomacy, security, economics, climate, pandemic response, and technology," the strategy states.

Like the Trump-era Indo-Pacific framework, Biden's strategy strongly emphasizes working together with U.S. allies and partners in the region, especially the Quad — which is made up of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia.

  • Citing China's economic coercion of Australia, border disputes with India, and threats against Taiwan and other neighbors in the East and South China Sea, the strategy notes that U.S. allies "bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior."
  • "We are deepening our five regional treaty alliances—with Australia, Japan, the [Republic of Korea], the Philippines, and Thailand—and strengthening relationships with leading regional partners, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Pacific Islands," the strategy reads.

Between the lines: A senior administration official told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trips to Australia, Fiji and Hawaii this week shows that the U.S. recognizes the importance of "sustained engagement" with the region — even as it faces the more acute crisis of Russia's possible invasion of Ukraine.

  • "The United States doesn't have the luxury to only focus on one region or one problem at a time," the official stressed.
  • Russia's threats to invade Ukraine — and Europe's ongoing reliance on the U.S. as a security guarantor — have disrupted the Biden administration's efforts to focus more of its attention and resources on the Indo-Pacific.

The bottom line: The U.S. is entering a new era of foreign policy that will "demand more of the United States in the Indo-Pacific than has been asked of us since the Second World War," the strategy contends.

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