America’s Indo-Pacific challenge

This article has been updated on February 4.

Competing with China is the foremost external policy challenge for the new US administration of President Joe Biden. More precisely, the problem is how to manage China’s power and assertiveness in a state of what incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell have called “competitive coexistence”1—in other words, how to prevent China’s dominance without war. This will involve a global struggle, including domestic dimensions of American resilience, renewal, and resistance to foreign interference. But one geographic space is especially important: the Indo-Pacific.

America cannot effectively compete with China if it allows Beijing hegemony over “the most populous, dynamic and consequential region in the world.”2 The cascading shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic are rendering this task both harder and easier: boosting China’s relative strength and confidence, at least for now, while making many nations more alert to China’s strategic ambitions and coercive methods, and thus motivated to resist. The challenge and opportunity for the Biden administration is to translate its promises about working with allies and partners into a multi-layered and sustainable strategy for the Indo-Pacific. As of February 2021, early signs are reassuring, including in senior appointments and signals to allies.3 The real test, of course, lies ahead. Given the urgency of domestic repair in the wake of Donald Trump and COVID-19, and the many priorities of a difficult global agenda, will the United States effectively resource and manage the many tasks that constitute a comprehensive strategy to work with allies and partners in preventing Chinese dominance of the Indo-Pacific region? And how will America handle the strategic surprises and tests of resolve that will inevitably arise?

Indo-Pacific, Asia-Pacific, Eurasia or what? There has been much debate in recent years regarding how to define the region in which China is expanding its power, interests, and presence, and what different definitions may mean for policy outcomes. In my 2020 book Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region,4 I built on an earlier article for The Asan Forum to explain the origin and strategic implications of the trend towards reimagining an Asia-centric part of the world.5  This work established a case for the validity, utility, and durability of a two-ocean and multipolar definition: the Indo-Pacific. The vicissitudes of 2020, particularly the global COVID-19 crisis, have put that analysis to a chaotic, real-world test. The present article assesses where the 2020 shock leaves the Indo-Pacific concept of competition, cooperation, and coexistence across a vast maritime zone—and accordingly whether this is a useful frame for Biden’s regional and China policy. I also offer preliminary views on how serious the new administration is about taking up its Indo-Pacific challenge, and what tests and obstacles are in store.

While the events of the past year have shaken regional order and the whole world, they have left the concept of the Indo-Pacific tempered and true. A few years ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had predicted that the Indo-Pacific idea would dissipate like ocean foam.6  Instead, a year of turmoil prompted or provoked in large part by China’s own hubristic behavior is lending even greater coherence to the ideas of multipolarity, agency, sovereignty, and inclusion that lie at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Regional middle players like Australia, India, and Japan have stepped up their efforts to join forces—with one another and America—to protect their interests across obsolete geographic boundaries. This in turn provides fertile diplomatic ground for the new administration in Washington to renew alliances and partnerships into the coalitions it will need to meet the China challenge.

But what is the Indo-Pacific and why does it matter?

The use of the term Indo-Pacific is no mere wordplay.7 It reflects something real: a changing approach by many nations to security, economics, and diplomacy. Far from being an obscure account of words and maps, the narrative of the Indo-Pacific helps nations face one of the great international dilemmas of the 21st century: how can other countries respond to a strong and often coercive China without resorting to capitulation or conflict? My book accords with the view that the most realistic objective for now is indeed competitive coexistence, and that the way to get there is a mix of deterrence, diplomacy, development (through geoeconomics and aid), solidarity, and national resilience.8

In statecraft, mental maps matter. These define each country’s natural “region”—what is on the map, what is off the map, and why. It equates to what academics call a strategic system or a regional security complex: a part of the world where the behavior of one or more powerful states has a strong and inescapable impact on the interests of other countries.9 What a nation imagines on the map is a marker of what that nation considers important. This in turn shapes the decisions of leaders, the destiny of nations, strategy itself. How leaders define regions can affect their allocation of resources and attention; the ranking of friends and foes; who is invited and who is overlooked at the top tables of diplomacy; what gets talked about, what gets done, and what gets forgotten. A sense of shared geography or “regionalism” can shape international cooperation and institutions.

At a descriptive level, the Indo-Pacific is just a neutral name for a new and expansive map centered on maritime Asia. It reframes the Asia-centric strategic environment across a larger canvas than the more familiar (but no less invented) late 20th century concept of the Asia-Pacific, which tended to downplay or even exclude South Asia and the Indian Ocean. It conveys that the Pacific and Indian oceans are connecting through trade, infrastructure, and diplomacy, in an era in which the world’s two most populous states, China and India, are rising together. Their economies, along with many others, rely on the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean to ship oil from the Middle East and Africa, and myriad other cargoes in both directions, along what continues to be the world’s vital commercial artery. The economic effects of COVID-19 put a 4% dent in global maritime trade in 2020, but growth is projected to return in 2021.10 

But the Indo-Pacific is also about drawing strength from vast space, and from solidarity among its many and diverse nations. The term recognizes that both economic ties and strategic competition now encompass an expansive two-ocean region, due in large part to China’s ascent, and that other countries must protect their interests through new partnerships across the blurring of old geographic boundaries. The Indo-Pacific thus serves as a stage for crafting policy responses to Chinese power, especially two complementary kinds of balancing: a web of security cooperation based on the US alliance system, most notably the Quadrilateral dialogue of America, Japan, India, and Australia; and emerging middle-power coalitions involving Japan, India, Australia, and occasionally others such as Southeast Asian or even European states. This conception of a two-ocean system privileges multipolarity—reflecting that this expansive region has always been a shared space, never been dominated by a single power. It also reflects the importance of the sea, including in seaborne trade, resource exploitation, the protection of the commons, and the effectiveness and flexibility of sea power.

China is the nation most critical of the Indo-Pacific term. Its officials and media propagandists claim the word is no more than a rationale for a strategy to contain Chinese power through a “quadrilateral” coalition—the United States, Japan, India, Australia—supported by whatever other partners America can enlist. Yet reality begs to differ. The irony is that what most makes the Indo-Pacific real is China’s own behaviour—its expanding economic, political, and military presence in the Indian Ocean, South Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and beyond. The signature foreign policy of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative, involves the so-called “Maritime Silk Road”—which means the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics. In a sense, China has become the quintessential Indo-Pacific power, and the only country with a comprehensive strategy to advance its interests unrelentingly across the region. There would be no modern Indo-Pacific without China’s vast and growing two-ocean footprint, in trade, investment, infrastructure, aid, diplomacy, espionage, political influence, and military presence—and its integrated use of all these instruments to build and project national power abroad while tightening regime control at home.

Tracking the Indo-Pacific tide

While the Indo-Pacific idea can suit American interests and values, it is not an American invention. Hints of the contemporary Indo-Pacific idea appeared shortly after the turn of the 21st century. Obama administration officials, including then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, occasionally used the formulation to describe aspects of the American “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia from 2011 onwards. In 2013, Australia was the first country to formally name its region the Indo-Pacific, in a defence policy “white paper.”11 Indonesia, Japan, and India were also exploring Indo-Pacific formulations, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo crystallized Japanese policy with his announcement of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy in 2016, building on his earlier (2007) policy visions of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” and “confluence of the two seas.”

Momentum gathered further once the United States, under the Trump administration, declared the Indo-Pacific as its region of principal strategic interest—and the zone of a fast-intensifying contest with China—in its National Security Strategy of December 2017.12  The powerful US military force based in Hawaii was renamed Indo-Pacific Command. The new terminology began to thread policy speeches, strategic documents, and legislation coming out of Congress, where it became associated with a rare focus of bipartisanship: a new recognition of China as a source of risk and rivalry.13 The early declassification, in January 2021, of the Trump administration’s strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific illuminated some previously under-recognized qualities of this policy.14

For all its shortcomings—insufficient resourcing, failure to factor in America’s domestic dysfunction, and Trump’s ally-alienating behavior—there was a coherent agenda, substantial elements of which were informed by allies and partners and intended to help them preserve their sovereignty.15 To be sure, America’s overriding objectives were about its own national security, prosperity, and influence, and in some areas—particularly multilateral free trade agreements—these jarred with the interests of allies. However, the new framework’s strengths were a recognition of the need to comprehensively compete with China, to do so across the full Indo-Pacific theater, to emphasize commonality with the overlapping approaches of allies and partners, and to involve the private sector in advancing alternatives to the Chinese Belt and Road strategy. It was just a start, and its early declassification can be read in part as an acknowledgement of how much remains unfinished.   

Still, if the Indo-Pacific had been a superficial and faddish notion, the Trump factor would have quickly sabotaged it. After all, he was entirely the wrong champion for an idea meant to advance stability via respect for allies and partners. It thus attests to the resilience and flexibility of the concept that so many other nations embraced it anyway. Contrary to some claims, the Indo-Pacific was not an intellectual confection made in Washington and foisted on an unreceptive Asia.16 Instead, it is an authentically regional approach to diplomacy, security, and economics, which has achieved growing support in Asia and beyond. Australia affirmed it as a basis for defense and foreign policy in major policy announcements in 2016 and 2017. The independent and creative middle-power activism of Australian diplomacy played a steady role in encouraging Indo-Pacific thinking throughout the region—and beyond—over subsequent years.17

The tide was gathering. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the Indo-Pacific the animating theme of his keynote speech at an Asia security summit in Singapore in 2018.18 France led the way for some other European countries to reframe much of their foreign and defense policy in Indo-Pacific terms, with President Macron calling for an Australia-India-France maritime axis in a speech in Sydney.19 In June 2019, encouraged by Indonesia, the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to an Indo-Pacific outlook on their relations with an enlarged region.20 This confirmed the Indo-Pacific was not an idea alien to Asia: indeed, it gave the middle players of ASEAN more centrality than they had in the past Asia-Pacific era, or than they would have in a world defined only by Beijing’s Belt and Road. The Indo-Pacific had rapidly assumed almost totemic significance for a wide range of nations affirming their agency between China and the United States.

The shock of 2020: China’s intensified assertiveness

How does the COVID-19 shock affect this picture? Less than one may have presumed. Were this cross-border contagion to paralyze seaborne trade, or turn all nations inward such that they eschewed international ambitions or partnerships, or its impact somehow convinced China to forget about seeking regional dominance and others to stop building coalitions of resistance, then history would note 2020 as the end of a fleeting Indo-Pacific moment. Instead, we are seeing the perpetuation of some Indo-Pacific dynamics and the acceleration of others. Without doubt, 2020 was in some ways a major turning point in world affairs, a time of tribulation: the advent of the pandemic and its awful reverberations in public health, economics, society, politics, and international relations. Yet in the two-ocean region, these impacts were at least as much about hastening existing geopolitical trends—especially of Chinese assertiveness, pushback from others, and solidarity among them.

In theory, a public health emergency is an opportunity for nations and societies to rise above their differences of politics, nationalism and insecurity: after all, in 1348 the medieval bubonic plague or “Black Death” brought a seven-year pause in the Hundred Years War between England and France. But it was not to be. After regaining control after the initial shock of the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government focused on the opportunity the pandemic offered to pursue relative national advantage over others. China has not chosen this phase of crisis as a time to abandon grand strategic designs of expanding influence and presence abroad, or to reduce the kind of tensions that make others see safety in numbers: quite the opposite. In so doing, it rejected a singular opportunity to become a genuine global leader and a magnanimous power.21

A pattern politely described in earlier years as mere “assertiveness” underwent a step change towards comprehensively confrontational “wolf warrior diplomacy.”. The logic—or otherwise—of this will long be debated: what mix of opportunism, insecurity, desperation, or overconfidence was motivating Xi Jinping’s regime? 22 Or is China’s rampant assertiveness now an unavoidable function of its internal repression? With slowing economic growth and the rollback of the slight freedoms of the 1979-2012 reform era, the projection of dominance abroad may be a necessary condition for sustained authoritarian control at home. Whatever the cause, the effect was clear. China’s official narrative portrays external tensions overwhelmingly as the result of confrontational US policy. Yet events in 2020 and into 2021 have confirmed a much wider arc of instability and coercion, with Chinese government action as the common factor. These developments include the following.

Ongoing military modernization: China continued to increase its military spending, even if at 6.6 percent the rise was lower than in previous years, and develop and deploy platforms and strike weapons for expansive maritime ambitions.23 Whatever initial interruptions from the impact of the pandemic—which probably reduced force readiness for many countries—the reported tempo of activity of its navy and militarized coastguard ultimately increased, in South China Sea and beyond.24 

Threats against Taiwan: Even while Taiwan gained global kudos for its successful management of the pandemic—within a democratic system—it was becoming subject to increasingly explicit threats of armed aggression from China. In late 2020 and into early 2021, warlike naval exercises and incursions from Chinese military aircraft brought cross-strait tensions to their highest levels since the mid 1990s.25 Chinese rhetoric towards Taiwan and the United States in the confrontational last months of the Trump administration was increasingly hostile, although fears that Xi Jinping would use the uncertainty of the US presidential election as cover for a major provocation did not eventuate.

The persecution of the Uighurs and the crushing of Hong Kong: Even as global public awareness grew of the mass detention and other human rights abuses against the Uighur people of Xinjiang, China’s repression continued and its propaganda of denial intensified.  New Secretary of State Antony Blinken has so far upheld, in rhetoric at least, the position expressed by the parting Trump administration that Chinese policy amounted to “genocide.”26 Also in 2020, Xi Jinping’s regime destroyed the remnants of Hong Kong’s autonomy, with a sweeping national security law that effectively abolished political freedoms, and its direct enforcement by Chinese security agencies to “eliminate dissent.”27 In diplomacy, this has resounded as a signal of bad faith in agreements—the abrogation of legal guarantees reached in the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom.

Global “wolf warrior diplomacy”: China’s foreign policy style was already becoming assertive and confrontational, but in 2020 it doubled down on this approach. This ultra-defensiveness manifested as a campaign of aggressive misinformation, notably over the origins and management of the COVID-19 pandemic. This contributed to worsening official relations and a souring of public opinion towards China in many parts of the world.28 And against some countries, notably substantial Indo-Pacific players India and Australia, “wolf warrior” anti-diplomacy was part of a wider campaign of coercion.   

Border clashes with India: 2020 will be remembered as the year that China categorically lost Indian public goodwill, perhaps for a generation. On June 15, the violent clash in Galwan Valley on the disputed border—which killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers—accentuated years of persistent confrontation, and left a heightened state of tension and frontline military readiness. It confirmed India on a path of resistance to Chinese influence, leading to a rupture in technology relations and a new determination to work with the United States and others in limiting Chinese power at sea, notably via Indo-Pacific groupings such as the Quadrilateral dialogue.   

Coercion against Australia: In 2020, Australia found itself subject to wide-ranging coercion from its largest trading partner. China is widely recognized as conducting a campaign of economic pressure, with informal sanctions spanning coal, barley, meat, seafood, wine, and tourism. This has been accompanied by extraordinary levels of intimidation through propaganda and diplomatic channels. The catalyst may have been Australia’s blunt call for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, but China is also seeking to neutralize Australia as both a US ally and a defiantly independent voice on issues ranging from 5G and foreign interference to the South China Sea and human rights. Australia’s government shows no sign of acceding to China’s many demands, but this will be a long crisis.29

Pressure in the South China Sea and East China Sea: Chinese forces maintained and, in some cases, intensified pressure in disputed waters, against Southeast Asian states, against Japan around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and against the forces of the United States and other countries passing through international waters in the South China Sea. In January 2021, China also passed a law explicitly authorizing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in disputed waters.30 

Expanding maritime presence and assertiveness in the wider Indo-Pacific: The expanding footprint of China’s maritime presence—military and civilian—across the two oceans has been a defining feature of the Indo-Pacific era. Some of this is understandable and legitimate behavior by a rising power dependent on the sea lanes. But 2020 also saw the growing impact of Chinese fishing fleets operating with impunity  in protected marine reserves and other countries’ exclusive economic zones far from home.31 The full picture of China’s naval ambitions in distant waters remains unclear, but secretive survey activity suited to submarine operations in the Indian Ocean is becoming common.32 And in Australia, concerns are rising over resource exploitation and security presence in the South Pacific, most recently regarding tiny Daru Island off Papua New Guinea, which some observers warn could bring China’s fishing fleet and maritime militia to the edge of Australian territory.33

Middle players push back

Rather than isolate or subdue the middle players, China’s actions in 2020 reinforced their earlier Indo-Pacific strategies of seeking common cause with one another, while building domestic resilience and keeping the door open for engagement on terms of mutual respect. Notably, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Japan, India, and Australia strengthened their bonds with each other and in a quadrilateral with America.

On June 4, 2020, a virtual summit meeting between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finalized a comprehensive strategic partnership reaching beyond maritime security into cyber, critical technologies, supply chains, and infrastructure. Then, in November 2020, the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia became deeper still. This remains the strongest pillar between two middle players in the Indo-Pacific, distinct from and complementing their alliances with the United States. It is clear that new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is continuing—and building upon—Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s effective Indo-Pacific policies. Morrison was the first foreign leader to visit Japan to meet Prime Minister Suga. They committed to mutual access arrangements for their military forces and strong collaboration on cyber, advanced technologies, critical minerals, supply chains, pandemic response, and regional capacity-building. This was in addition to the solid cooperation already existing between Japanese and Australian military and intelligence establishments. And they promised a further buttressing of so-called “minilateral” cooperation among small groups of countries—such as Australia-Japan-India and Australia-Japan-America.

Most prominent among these new small groups is the famous Quadrilateral dialogue or “Quad”: Japan, Australia, India, and the United States. In late 2020, at India’s invitation, the Australian navy returned to the “Malabar” maritime exercises, so that now there is a permanent framework for the four navies to train together and prepare jointly for future risks and contingencies. The Quad is here to stay, and has been signaled by the Biden team as a priority.

Indeed, the Quad is starting to become a core group for larger coalitions to address shared problems. The Quad countries have been joined by Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand for regular and ongoing dialogue on managing COVID-19 and making their societies and economies resilient to future shocks such as risks to supply chains. As Biden promotes renewed partnership among democracies worldwide, there will be scope to coordinate overlapping groups the Quad, the Five Eyes (US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), the G7, and a proposed D10 of leading democracies. This will not be straightforward. A British proposal to extend the G7 to the D10 has reportedly been met with caution from Japan, said to be wary of the notion of bringing South Korea, in particular, into this trusted circle.34 Among other things, this reinforces the need for the United States to redouble efforts to emphasize common ground between its two north Asian allies, and to draw Seoul into wider Indo-Pacific efforts, recognizing that the Republic of Korea is as dependent as Japan on wider sea lane security and a rules-based order across the region. For the moment, South Korea remains ambiguous about the Indo-Pacific agenda.35

The impact of COVID-19 is reinforcing the sense across much of the world that relations with an authoritarian China bring at least as much risk as opportunity. The European Union, and Germany in particular, is still trying to renew economic partnership with China on the assumption that somehow concerns over human rights and strategic assertiveness can be managed or put to one side.  At the same time, more countries from the wider world are considering how to support an overall balancing arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. Germany and the Netherlands have joined France in declaring a formal Indo-Pacific policy in support of multipolarity and against Chinse hegemony. Britain is preparing to send its new aircraft carrier to Asian waters; Germany plans to send a frigate. In January 2021, Canada joined anti-submarine warfare exercises with Quad countries out of Guam.

A new pattern is emerging. On the one hand, it will be even more difficult for nations to balance against Chinese power when their own wealth and power have been so damaged by the impact of the pandemic. On the other hand, this new strategic frugality will encourage even greater efforts to build partnerships, to find safety in numbers. The pandemic has not put a stop to strategic balancing. It is just getting started.

Biden sets sail for the Indo-Pacific

Initial commentary was mixed as to whether the Biden administration would embrace and build on the growing international trend towards an Indo-Pacific approach, or would reflexively opt for a narrower and 20th century Asia-Pacific perspective, if only because Indo-Pacific was a term used by the outgoing Trump administration.36  The latter would have been an error, early and unforced. Indeed, it is precisely what the Chinese Communist Party regime, through its Global Times propaganda outlet, has been calling for.37  After all, the term Indo-Pacific has become emblematic for the efforts of many of America’s allies and partners to push back against China through broad solidarity, novel coalitions, and a regional rules-based order based on principles of sovereignty and non-coercion.

For about a decade, Australia, Japan, India, and Indonesia have been advocates of the Indo-Pacific. This connotes two key messages: a recognition that regional geopolitics, economics, contestation, and connectivity are playing out increasingly across a two-ocean system; and that engaging with a wider array of partners across this large canvas offers a chance to reduce risks of instability, conflict, coercion, and hegemony. More recently, these early Indo-Pacific champions have been joined by the entire ASEAN, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Taiwan in this shared vision of regional order. Sceptics accentuate the differences among their positions and definitions—some countries emphasize terms like “Free and Open,” others do not—but more unites these Indo-Pacific visions than divides them: particularly the emphasis on rules, sovereignty, inclusion, and multipolarity. Others including South Korea, Britain, the European Union, Canada, and Chile are at an earlier stage of integrating such Indo-Pacific thinking into their own external policies.

It would have been anachronistic and paradoxically unilateralist if the United States—in its return to internationalism under the Democrats—had somehow chosen to reject this trend. An American abjuration of the Indo-Pacific idea—and the associated recognition that the United States would need to prioritize competing with China in this region – would have gone against a regional and indeed global tide. To be sure, it is likely that any new administration would have come to this realisation eventually, but precious time would have been lost. As astute Indian observer Dhruva Jaishankar points out:

The primary yardstick by which the new administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific should be assessed ought not to be the appointment of personnel or use of specific phrases, but rather how long it takes to adopt a sound basis for regional policy and how quickly it is able to accelerate the learning curve.38

If this is the measure, then the Biden administration is off to a credible start. It is already becoming clear that the administration intends to own, adapt, and enhance the Indo-Pacific character of American policy in recent years.

This has been affirmed in several ways. The readouts from the president-elect’s early telephone conversations with the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea were disciplined in their Indo-Pacific terminology but, more importantly, in their identification of a comprehensive and cooperative policy agenda, including based around shared support for democracy. This approach was sustained in the early outreach of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, notably to Japanese Defense Secretary Kishi Nobuo and Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds. Initial concerns that Austin or Secretary of State Antony Blinken were not the right people to lead on China and the Indo-Pacific – perhaps too invested in the Middle East or Atlanticism—have subsided. Beyond clear statements of priorities during Senate confirmation hearings, US forces in the Western Pacific have proceeded seamlessly with exercises and deployments to signal forward presence and resolve, including in the South China Sea.

Senior official appointments point overwhelmingly in one direction, including Jake Sullivan (national security adviser), Kurt Campbell (Indo-Pacific coordinator in the White House), Ely Ratner (Pentagon special adviser on China), Laura Rosenberger (National Security Council director for China), Kelly Magsamen (chief of staff to Austin), and Mira Rapp-Hooper (senior adviser on China, policy planning, State Department).39 All have used recent years to formulate and publish their own firm positions on issues like competitive coexistence with China, greater support for allies, and countering the foreign interference and propaganda that is part of Beijing’s playbook for dominance. For instance, Ely Ratner led the authorship of a major Congressionally-mandated report in 2020 setting out the case for, and the mechanics of, a comprehensive strategy to renew American competitiveness against China in the Indo-Pacific.40

Heavy weather ahead

It is fortunate the new team has already done so much reflection, as the hard going begins now. Predictably, North Korea has already begun probing the new US administration’s resolve: days before the inauguration, Pyongyang was parading what it claimed to be nuclear-capable and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. China too is putting the new president to the test, challenging the “fuzzy goodwill” with which the transition in Washington has been welcomed by America’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners, as eminent Indian strategist Raja Mohan has warned.41

Indeed, within days of the inauguration, there were reports of new incursions into Taiwanese airspace, simulated preparations for an aerial bombardment of a US aircraft carrier battle group,42 clashes on the China-India border,43 and renewed pressure on the Philippines in the South China Sea. Such data points are probably as much a reflection of the new normal as a calculated test of the resolve of the United States. Some analysts warn that that the most heightened phase of risk with China is the next few years, at most the next decade: the growing strategic backlash from America and much of the world, combined with a quiet realization of China’s own long-term economic slowdown and demographic problems, means that Beijing’s window of advantage, may close.44 I would add that China is also likely to find itself in compounding difficulty in managing the overstretch of its Belt and Road activities, including security risks to Chinese interests and personnel in far-flung locations, from Africa to South Asia to the South Pacific. But even if the danger zone proves to be merely constant peril rather than escalating aggression, there is no guaranteed path from here to Washington’s new aspirations for a stable equilibrium involving competition, coexistence, and eventual cooperation.

There will be several essential ingredients to a Biden Indo-Pacific strategy. Engagement with allies and partners is an obvious one, and the right intent is already being amply shown. The Biden administration will also need quickly to develop and demonstrate its own appetite for strategic risk in managing China. It will need to move quickly to translate the good ideas of its new officials into the kind of military capability and posture a more dynamic deterrence relationship with China will require, including affordable and asymmetric capabilities, long-range conventional strike capabilities, unmanned systems, dispersed and hardened bases.45 Ultimately, this will go to the question of how successfully the administration can both protect and discipline defense spending amid the immense pressures for expenditures on the pandemic response, economic recovery, and national infrastructure. Observers like Hal Brands are right that “purposeful international action” can complement—not contradict—American renewal at home, but this will take a whole-of-nation commitment in a divided country.

One difficult area, vital to success in the Indo-Pacific, where this challenge will become apparent is the question of free trade. American strategy in the region will be incomplete, and vulnerable to China’s economic gravity, until Washington can rebuild a constructive agenda on multilateral trade: certainly, that is the sense among allies and ASEAN.46 More easily, we can expect the new administration to shore up and begin repairing America’s depleted diplomatic capacity, and to prioritize proper participation in the region’s complex array of multilateral groupings and summits. America will stand a much better chance of using the East Asia Summit to set norms against Chinese coercion now that it has a president who may actually show up.

Moderating primacy?

The most fundamental unresolved question, however, is precisely what vision the Biden administration has for America’s role in the Indo-Pacific: primacy, pre-eminence, leadership, limited balancing, or something else? A close reading of the previous government’s declassified strategic framework revealed a telling terminological inconsistency. For the most part, it defined the headline challenge as how to maintain US “strategic primacy,” but at one point it lapsed into noting a need to avoid the loss of US “pre-eminence.”47 This may well be simply a compromise of committee drafting rather than a deliberately mixed message. But there is a deeper point, and the published writings of the new administration’s Indo-Pacific experts reflect a rich and unresolved debate. In particular, Mira Rapp-Hooper has argued that strategic primacy is no longer the right goal for America in Asia, since it connotes a leading power without great-power rivals. A more realistic goal is pre-eminence, “a condition in which a state leads on most critical metrics of national power,” and US policy should focus on utilizing continued global pre-eminence to marshal allies, partners, and America’s own capacity for renewal in order to prevent a closed Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific.48  It is a sophisticated argument and one that will be difficult to translate into political rhetoric or America’s self-image. But it may be just the right starting point for a vision that entails the right balance of leadership and coalition-building, confidence and realism, as the new administration wades into a contested Indo-Pacific.        

1. Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe; How American Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019,  See also Andrew Erickson, “Competitive coexistence: an American concept for managing US-China relations,” The National Interest online, January 30 2019,

2. Ely Ratner, Daniel Kliman, Susanna Blume, Rush Dori, et al, “Rising to the China Challenge: Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific: an independent assessment for Congress,” Center for a New American Security, December 2019, p. 2,

3. Josh Rogin, “Biden’s pick for top Asia official should reassure nervous allies,” The Washington Post, January 13 2021,

4. Rory Medcalf, Indo-Pacific Empire (Manchester: Manchester United Press, 2020),

5. Rory Medcalf, “Reimagining Asia: From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific,” The Asan Forum, June 26, 2015,

6. Bill Birtles, “China mocks Australia over ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept it says will ‘dissipate,’” ABC News, March 8, 2018,

7. Rory Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?” The American Interest, October 2013,

8. Rory Medcalf, Indo-Pacific Empire, p. 247.

9. Barry Buzan, “Security architecture in Asia: the interplay of regional and global levels,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2003), pp. 145–48.

10. “COVID-19 and Maritime Transport: Impact and Responses, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development,” report UNCTAD/DTL/TLB/INF/2020/1, 2020,

11. Commonwealth of Australia, “Defence White Paper 2013,” pp. 7, 13.

12. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, pp. 45–47.

13. Department of Defense, “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: preparedness, partnerships, and promoting a networked region,” June 1, 2019.

14. National Security Council, “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” declassified January 5, 2020,

15. Laura Tingle, “For Australia, a secret document raises crucial questions about US foreign policy,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 16, 2021,

16. Editorial Board, East Asia Forum, ‘India’s cautious courtship with the US-led order in Asia,” East Asia Forum (blog), September 24, 2018.

17. Jeffrey Wilson, “Review: Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2020),

18. Narendra Modi, keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, June 1, 2018.

19. Frederic Grare, “France: the other Indo-Pacific power,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 21, 2020,

20. “ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations, June 23, 2019; Melissa Conley Tyler, “The Indo-Pacific is the new Asia,” The Interpreter (Lowy Institute blog), June 28, 2019.

21. Arvind Subramaniam, “China has blown its historic opportunity,” Project Syndicate/Business Standard, July 21 2020,

22. Andrew Small and Dhruva Jaishankar, “‘For our enemies we have shotguns’: explaining China’s new assertiveness,” War on the Rocks, July 20, 2020,

23. Mike Yeo, “China announces $178.3 billion military budget,” Defense News, May 22, 2020,

24. “Still on the beat: China coast guard patrols in 2020,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, December 4, 2020,  “How COVID-19 affected US-China military signalling,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, December 17, 2020,

25. Ben Blanchard, “Taiwan reports ‘large incursion’ by Chinese airforce,” Reuters, January 23, 2021,

26. “With China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs determined to be genocide, Biden administration under pressure to act,” CBS News, January 27, 2021,

27. “Hong Kong security law being used to ‘eliminate dissent,’ says US, UK, Australia and Canada,” The Guardian, January 10, 2021,

28. “Unfavorable views of China reach historic highs in many countries,” Pew Research Center, October 6, 2020,

29. Alan Dupont, “Fighting the dragon: an effective response to Chinese coercion,” The Australian, December 11, 2020,

30. Catherine Wong, “China gives coastguards power to fire on foreign ships in disputed waters,” South China Morning Post, January 23, 2020,

31. Dan Collyns, “Chinese fishing armada plundered waters around Galapagos, data shows,” The Guardian, September 17 2020,

32.   H. I. Sutton, “Chinese survey ship caught ‘running dark’ gives clues to underwater drone operations,” USNI News, January 16, 2021,

33. Anthony Bergin and Jeffrey Wall, “China’s deal with PNG will deplete fishing stock and pose border risk,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 23, 2020,

34. “Japan pushes back against UK plan to boost G7 Asia reach,” Japan Times,

35. US Department of State, “Fact Sheet: The United States and the Republic of Korea on Working Together to Promote Cooperation between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the New Southern Policy,” January 20, 2021,

36. Derek Grossman, “Biden Administration Could Benefit from Keeping an Indo-Pacific Focus,” RAND (blog), November 30, 2020,

37. “Biden should revamp Asia-Pacific path, ditch Indo-Pacific idea: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, November 25, 2020,

38. Dhruva Jaishankar, “Washington’s warped Asia Policy Debate,” The Interpreter, December 18, 2020,

39. Tyler Pager and Natasha Bertrand, “White House shifts from Middle East quagmires to a showdown with China,” Politico, January 28 2021,

40. Ely Ratner, Daniel Kliman, Susanna Blume, Rush Dori et al, ‘Rising to the China Challenge.”

41. C. Raja Mohan, “A New Pivot to Asia,” Foreign Policy, January 15, 2021,

42. Jamie Seidel, “China flexes muscles to US in South China Sea after promising to ‘open fire,’”, January 28, 2021.

43. Jeffrey Gettleman, Emily Schmall, and Hari Kumar, “New India-China Border Clash Shows Simmering Tensions,” The New York Times, January 25 2021,

44. Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, “Into the Danger Zone: The Coming Crisis in US-China Relations,” American Enterprise Institute brief, January 2021,

45. Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, “How America can Shore Up Asian Order,” Foreign Affairs, January 12, 2020,

46. Yoichi Funibashi, “Why a new Asia policy is needed under Biden,” Japan Times, January 17, 2021,

47. National Security Council, “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” January 5, 2020, pp. 1-2.

48. Mira Rapp-Hooper, “From Primacy to Openness: US Strategic Objectives in Asia,” in Leah Bitounis and Jonathan Price, eds., The Struggle for Power: US-China Relations in the 21st Century, Aspen Institute, pp. 105, 109,