During a congratulatory call with Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the presumed president-elect that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance.
Could the incoming president return to the China policy approach of the Barack Obama presidency? Mr. Obama, despite Beijing’s creation and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea on his watch, contended just months before leaving office that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Mr. Biden stunned many last year with his apparent strategic naivete by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Mr. Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
Mr. Biden’s pick as secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, offered little clarity on China when he spoke at the Hudson Institute about four months ago. Mr. Blinken said a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centered and “reengage China and work with China” in areas where Sino-U.S. interests converge.
The current bipartisan consensus in Washington that the U.S. must get tough with Beijing is likely to prevent Mr. Biden from returning to the softer China approach of the Obama period. Beijing has ramped up its expansionism by capitalizing on the world’s preoccupation with battling the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China.
Mr. Biden’s calls with foreign leaders in recent days, however, signal his intent to discard the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept was authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy relies on the Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. This month’s Australia-India-Japan-U.S. naval war games in the Indian Ocean showed that the Quad is beginning to take concrete shape. A concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever.
But just when the four powers appear on the cusp of formalizing their coalition, the impending change in the White House has injected new uncertainty.
The demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is likely to spur concerns in Asia, given Beijing’s heavy-handed use of its military and economic power. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, which hosted the recent Quad naval war games. India elevated the war games this year from a trilateral to quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to rejoin an exercise from which it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Times said earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
China’s aggressive expansionism has driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to its building closer defense and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the U.S. and concluding military logistics agreements this year with Japan and Australia. The Trump administration has helped midwife such a tectonic shift by placing India at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with it.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
But even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Mr. Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform. In recent calls with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, Mr. Biden emphasized a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” instead of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Make no mistake: The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s days seem numbered. Mr. Biden is likely to enunciate a new regional strategy.
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Mr. Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Mr. Biden, the likely unraveling of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy could smother any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
• Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”
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