India and other nations in the region will benefit immensely from a reality check by the White House of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
When Joe Biden assumed the US presidency, there were heightened expectations from the new administration about its outlook for South East Asia and the Indo-Pacific – a region pivotal to India’s geostrategic interests.
There were lingering questions whether he would reverse many of President Donald Trump’s policies – including the US strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
There was speculation that Team Biden could even rename the Indo-Pacific strategy to distance it from Trump – substituting it with more prosaic options such as Strategic Rebalance or Pivot to Asia – and follow it up with a reduction in the geographic scope of Biden's strategy, such as returning to an Asia-Pacific lens.
But thankfully none of those counterproductive scenarios have come to fruition – and the Indo-Pacific, stretching from California to Mount Kilimanjaro, remains firmly on Biden’s agenda.
That’s what was confirmed by none other than Anthony Blinken.
Describing India as one of the most important partners of the US in the Indo-Pacific region, the US Secretary of State last month said the Biden administration welcomes India’s emergence as a leading global power and its role as a net security provider in the region – invoking the Indo-Pacific as proof.
“India is one of the most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region to us. We welcome India's emergence as a leading global power and its role as a net security provider in the region,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a news conference.
“India’s political leaders, diplomats, journalists and scholars, now have a clear view about the thinking of the Biden Administration. Some of them have met President Joe Biden himself. Others have interacted with senior personalities, ranging from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and William Burns as Director CIA, to Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, and Kurt Campbell as the Indo-Pacific Coordinator in the White House,” said G Parthasarathy, India’s former High Commissioner to Pakistan.
“The President himself has a clear idea of the India-US relationship from his days as Barrack Obama’s Vice-President. More importantly, as Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he spearheaded moves in the Senate by President George Bush to end nuclear sanctions against India,” Parthasarathy wrote in a column for The Hindu, adding: “It is also evident that the Biden Administration recognises the importance of the Quad, especially as Pakistan will now be providing naval base facilities to China in two sites in its Sind Province. These ports will supplement Chinese naval base facilities in Gwadar, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.”
Other analysts agree that US misgivings about the increasing Chinese footprint across Asia remain an optimal concern for the new White House.
“China itself operates through an Indo-Pacific lens. Although the Taiwan Strait and South and East China Seas remain the center of gravity for Beijing's coercive efforts, its diplomatic, economic, and military reach have increasingly impacted the Indian Ocean region and Oceania as well. China is leveraging Belt and Road Initiative projects in every South Asian country other than India to potentially secure access to geostrategically significant territories,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst.
“The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ sends the appropriate message to Beijing that, in an era of great-power competition, Washington is prioritizing cooperation with maritime rim nations and island states to push back against China's rising assertiveness and influence. Doing so implies that the window of opportunity for Washington to cooperate with Beijing is closing, which should add pressure to a nation that already has few friends and convince it of the need to behave responsibly. Of course, Beijing has referred to the Indo-Pacific strategy as part of a US plan to contain China, but that narrative is increasingly irrelevant to most countries who are regularly victimized by their powerful neighbor,” Grossman said.
India and other allies of the US – especially the other members of the Quad – have been heartened by the small but subtle changes on the Indo-Pacific issue signaled by Biden at the start of his tenure. Notably, Biden replaced Trump's bumper-sticker goal of keeping the Indo-Pacific region “free and open” to “secure and prosperous,” suggesting that heftier changes might be on the horizon.
In addition, specifically for New Delhi, the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership remains broad as well as multi-faceted.
“We’ll continue to engage at the highest levels of our government to deepen cooperation on many fronts, and we are confident that the strong and upward trajectory of our partnership will, in fact, continue,” said Price of the State Department.
India and the US, he said, cooperate on a wide range of diplomatic and security issues, including defence, nonproliferation, regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, the environment, health, education, technology, agriculture, space and oceans. “We also work closely in international organisations, and we welcome India joining the Security Council in last month of this year for a two-year term," Price said.
Yet, beyond the comfortable embrace of that partnership, several analysts are not convinced by the current White House strategy. They feel that the Biden administration needs to be more in tune with the geopolitical reality of the region than its rather rosy view of the Indo-Pacific, and take a more aggressive view of the situation.
“There are two intellectual problems that will hamstring the Biden team in the near term: The unfeasibility of its dual-track approach to China, and its lack of concrete policy options for how ‘to work more closely with allies’ in the Indo-Pacific. Both these analytical impediments can and will ultimately be overcome. But doing so will take precious time,” said John C. Hulsman, president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a political risk consulting firm, and a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
“We must start with structural realism; with the structural great power reality of the new era we find ourselves in. We live in a time of loose bipolarity, where beneath the superpower competition between the US and China, great powers India, Japan, the Anglosphere (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK), the EU and Russia have the ability to chart their own independent foreign policy course, irrespective of the wishes of the two superpowers,” he said in a commentary for the Observer Research Foundation.
“Acting as if there can be intense Cold War competition on one hand and intense cooperation on another is to misunderstand how human beings work. Over time, both sets of issues are bound to bleed into one another and cannot be kept separate... Beyond this analytical muddle, the Wilsonian administration has yet to explain how ‘working with allies in the Indo-Pacific’ is more than a bumper sticker. As always in international relations, the devil is in the detail. And, so far, the detail does not look encouraging,” Hulsman added.
Indeed, in the context of the region, Indo-Pacific is more than just a name.
“It is more than just geography. It is actually a mindset that shapes how Washington observes and responds to China. Indo-Pacific is also a signaling mechanism to Beijing that Washington, in concert with allies and partners, is on the same page in facing down Chinese threats that can no longer remain confined to China's immediate borders,” said Grossman.
Therefore, how forcefully the Biden administration navigates the political and economic challenges of the Indo-Pacific in the coming weeks and months will ultimately shape the region’s geo-strategy for a long time to come.