With the fate of European security and the volatile U.S.-Russian relationship hanging in the balance, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Fiji in mid-February, promising “we see our future in the Indo-Pacific,” and pledging to build an embassy in the Solomon Islands, the scene of recent turmoil.
Blinken’s tour across the region was timed to coincide with a release of the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States. While the new strategy does make some helpful refinements to the original Indo-Pacific strategy written by the Trump administration, it nevertheless falls well short when it comes to developing a coherent logic for where, how and why the U.S. might resort to the use of force in this vast region.
Thus, acute issues ranging from the Sino-Indian border to the reefs in the South China Sea to the ultimate flashpoint of Taiwan are simply glossed over with anodyne references to “rules-based approaches” and “integrated deterrence.” Strategists will not find any genuine answers to the myriad American security quandaries in the Asia-Pacific in this document.
The strategy is indisputably well-written and admirably seeks to downplay “geopolitical competition” to favor certain new issues in the security space, such as climate change, which is mentioned throughout.
Substantial improvements appear in this strategy over its Trump administration predecessor in that the document clearly differentiates between “treaty allies” and also “partners.” As we are seeing in the Ukraine crisis, such differences matter fundamentally.
Still, the document is plagued by many of the same inconsistencies and unanswered questions that afflicted its predecessor. There is the customary rhetoric about democratic institutions and values, but allies and partners like Thailand, Vietnam, and Philippines are nowhere called out for their plentiful misdeeds on that score.
India is mentioned a few times in the document, but nowhere is it clear what actually justifies an “Indo-Pacific” strategy versus an “Asia-Pacific” plan of action. Despite India’s military challenges and concerns about its human rights approach, the strategy suggests India might be useful in defending against China. That strategic ploy has yet to show any tangible national security dividends after more than a decade.
Speaking of national security, that seems to be a secondary concern for a strategy seemingly more focused on STEM fellowships, jobs, “climate-aligned infrastructure investments” and the pandemic. Nowhere in the document are nuclear or hypersonic weapons addressed, but there are multiple mentions of the U.S. Coast Guard.
A few cutters are no more likely to bring order to the South China Sea than they are to help beleaguered Ukraine. Such U.S. efforts to compete in the “gray zone,” however well-intentioned, actually amount to a pile of beans. Europe and NATO appear throughout the document, but that too seems to be a sad illusion. Other than the frankly deleterious “cheerleading effect,” it is far from clear the Europeans can deliver more than token combat power in a timely way to an Asia-Pacific scenario.
So, the most difficult and indeed perilous strategic dilemmas continue to go unaddressed. How will the U.S. implement the AUKUS accord when it is struggling to keep its own navy supplied with adequate numbers of nuclear submarines and when, realistically, will Canberra’s ‘cavalry’ actually arrive? What does it mean for a Taiwan scenario if China has more than 10 times the number of airfields to operate its fighter-interceptors out of? How do we reappraise the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific if China has surpassed the U.S. both in the quality of its surface combatants and, more importantly, in the characteristics of its anti-ship missiles?
The reality is resources and capabilities do not match ambitions, and they aren’t likely to for the foreseeable future. That calls for a readjustment of U.S. defense objectives, bringing them in line with realities on the ground, in the air and at sea. It also requires hard discussions with allies and partners about what Washington can and cannot do.
Indeed, the present Russia-Ukraine crisis is a harsh reminder that soaring rhetoric, politically correct phrasing, and vague wish lists do not make for good strategy. At the most fundamental level, strategy is choice and tough choices now need to be made in the Asia-Pacific region.
Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities, a think tank.