America’s Indo-Pacific challenge

Competing with China is the foremost external policy challenge for the incoming US Administration of President-elect Joe Biden. More precisely, the problem is how to manage China’s power and assertiveness in a state of competitive coexistence—in other words, how to prevent Chinese dominance without conflict. This is a global struggle, which includes 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 this vast region, the economic and strategic centre of gravity in a connected world. 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 strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

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 recent book Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region1, 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 space.2 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 this analysis to a chaotic, real-world test.

Accordingly, the present article will in part assess where the 2020 shock leaves the Indo-Pacific concept of competition, cooperation and coexistence across a vast maritime zone. Tempered and true is the short answer. A few years ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had predicted that the Indo-Pacific idea would dissipate like ocean foam.3 Instead, a year of turmoil driven in large part by China’s own behavior is lending even greater coherence to the notion of regional middle powers teaming up to protect their interests across old subregional boundaries.

Yet as of December 2020, commentary is mixed as to whether the Biden Administration will embrace and build on the growing international trend towards an Indo-Pacific approach, or will 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.4 The latter would be 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.5 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. More recently, they have been joined by the entire Association of Southeast Asia Nations, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Taiwan in this shared vision of regional order. Others including South Korea, Britain, the European Union, Canada, and Chile are at an earlier stage of integrating Indo-Pacific thinking into external policy. It would be anachronistic, counterproductive and unilateralist if the United States were to reject this trend. Fortunately, some early signals from the incoming Biden Administration suggest that this will not be the case: for instance, the readouts from the President-elect’s early telephone conversations with the leaders of Australia, Japan and South Korea were disciplined both in their use of Indo-Pacific terminology and their identification of a comprehensive and cooperative policy agenda, including based around shared support for democracy.6 Certainly, if the United States under Biden is serious about consulting and respecting allies and partners – a major differentiator from Trump – then coordination on Indo-Pacific perspectives and policy would be an essential place to start.

1. Rory Medcalf, Indo-Pacific Empire (Manchester: Manchester United Press, 2020), https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526150783/

2. Rory Medcalf, “Reimagining Asia: From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific,” The Asan Forum, June 26, 2015,  http://www.theasanforum.org/reimagining-asia-from-asia-pacific-to-indo-pacific/

3. Bill Birtles, “China mocks Australia over ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept it says will ‘dissipate’,” ABC News, March 8, 2018,  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-08/china-mocks-australia-over-indo-pacific-concept/9529548

4. Derek Grossman, “Biden Administration Could Benefit from Keeping an Indo-Pacific Focus,” RAND (blog), November 30, 2020,  https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/11/biden-administration-could-benefit-from-keeping-an.html

5. “Biden should revamp Asia-Pacific path, ditch Indo-Pacific idea: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, November 25, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208033.shtml

6. Lalit Jha, “In calls with leaders of Australia, Japan and S Korea, Biden emphasises on a secure, prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Outlook, November 20, 2020, https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/in-calls-with-leaders-of-australia-japan-and-s-korea-biden-emphasises-on-a-secure-prosperous-indopacific/1974734