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The new US Indo-Pacific Strategy: Balancing continuity with new and evolving environment

  • IASbaba
  • March 17, 2022
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(ORF: Expert Speak)


March 15: The new US Indo-Pacific Strategy: Balancing continuity with new and evolving environment – https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-new-us-indo-pacific-strategy/ 

TOPIC:

  • GS-2: India and its neighbourhood

The new US Indo-Pacific Strategy: Balancing continuity with new and evolving environment

Context: The new US Indo-Pacific Strategy released on 22 February 022 has evoked limited interest for a variety of reasons. Key amongst these are—the Russia-Ukraine crisis that turned into an invasion and war on 24 February 2022. However, the US has continued to signal that its engagement and strategy for this region will be enduring, and conflicts or crises in other parts of the world will not have any significant impact on it. The new strategy maintains continuity in the broad direction outlined in the last US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which was released on 1 June 2019. However, there are subtle changes in some areas, which may be seen as adaptation to the evolving geostrategic environment.

The New Strategy

Geographic expanse 

  • The previous strategy had indicated the key objective to be “sustaining the US influence to achieve regional objectives”. The new strategy too highlights its objective as “building a balance of influence” in the region. 
  • However, it adds additional text that stresses on managing competition with the PRC responsibly. This lesser provocative stance is likely intended to allay concerns, particularly within the region, about the trajectory of the great power rivalry and competition, and to enable building and strengthening partnerships. 
  • The new strategy considers it to be “from our Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean”, with focus on North East Asia, South East Asia, South Asia, and Oceania—including the Pacific islands. While the western Indian Ocean is not included in both, the limit of the west coast of India has been removed and South Asia included as a whole in the new strategy. By implication, the broader swathe of the Arabian Sea is now considered part of the region by the US.

Emphasises ‘alliances and partnerships’, with specific reference to the existing regional treaty alliances. 

  • It seeks to modernise and adapt these alliances (Australia, Japan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand), while strengthening emerging partnerships. Amongst partnerships, the Quad finds special emphasis and repeated mention in the strategy. 
  • It seeks to strengthen the Quad, and explore the Quad working with ASEAN.  Unlike in 2019, the new strategy seeks to align approaches with the EU and NATO. This is in part due to the recognition that the EU and US strategies for the region differ in various areas. 
  • It is also noteworthy that the new security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US (AUKUS) for the region, unveiled on 15 September 2021, finds only a brief mention in the last part that outlines the action plan. Downplaying AUKUS could possibly be because of the concerns expressed by some partners about its likely trajectory, and to ensure that AUKUS does not come in the way of the US developing partnerships and connections within and beyond the region.

Introduces economic and trade partnership agenda, with an ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’ intended to launch in early 2022. 

  • It also includes references to areas like democratic values, technology, digital, climate, environment, and health. This makes the strategy well-rounded, though the main focus continues to be on ‘security’, with special attention to the maritime domain. 
  • The new plan to drive resources to the region stresses on opening of new embassies/consulates, providing security assistance to partners, and expanding the US Coastguard presence in the region. This links to the new emphasis on partnerships, and additional challenges posed by China’s grey zone operations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Supporting India’s continued rise and regional leadership is indicated as a separate action agenda item, which is also linked to making the Quad more effective. Given India’s neutral position so far on the Russia-Ukraine war, differing views on taking this part of the strategy forward are likely to emerge in the near term.

China’s possible response

The environment, challenges, and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific region are significantly different from those in Eastern Europe. Yet, the Russia-Ukraine war and related, ongoing developments are bound to strongly influence the narrative about the Indo-Pacific. Debates on comparisons, justified or otherwise, can be expected. 

  • China and Russia, who are opposed to the concept of the Indo-Pacific Region, started to draw parallels and criticise the US strategies for the region. 
  • China is likely to continue to emphasise that the US and NATO approaches in Eastern Europe are likely to be replicated in the Indo-Pacific, with potential consequences similar to the devastation and suffering seen in Ukraine.
  • The method of war termination, the scope of post-war settlement between Russia and Ukraine, and changes in the European security architecture will influence approaches in other regions, including the Indo-Pacific.
  • China may also be expected to stress the common ground between the Chinese and the EU approaches to the Indo-Pacific, particularly on inclusivity, which is not part of the new US strategy. 
  • It will also seek to limit the adverse fallout on China-Europe cooperation, since China has been seen by the vast majority in Europe to be on the side of Russia. The method of war termination, the scope of post-war settlement between Russia and Ukraine, and changes in the European security architecture will influence approaches in other regions, including the Indo-Pacific.

Conclusion

The new strategy indicates bipartisan support and continuity at the policy level in the US related to the Indo-Pacific. It has been adapted to the current environment with changes from the 2019 strategy, however, it is still more like a statement of intent. 

  • Since it is thin on many details related to its implementation, it leaves many aspects open to varied assessments and estimations regarding its action agenda. 
  • It has sought to expand its scope beyond security, but once again with limited details. 

The US prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific region and the release of this strategy have also been overshadowed by the Russia-Ukraine war, which is the largest conventional military attack since the end of World War II. 

  • The war and the eventual settlement will impact the implementation of strategies in other regions, including the new US strategy for the Indo-Pacific. 

Can you answer the following questions?

  1. The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy continues to focus on bolstering its security and counterbalancing China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Comment.

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