Foreign Relations & International Law

The Indo-Pacific Strategy Is a Recipe for Disaster

Lyle J. Goldstein
Thursday, February 18, 2021, 8:56 AM

The Biden administration should start over rather than build on the strategy the outgoing administration declassified.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan conducts operations with USS Nimitz in the South China Sea on July 6, 2020. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody Beam via DVIDS

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In early March 1992, a foundational U.S. strategy surfaced revealing that America’s goal after the Cold War would henceforth be, in the words of the New York Times’s reporting on the document, “to insure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge” and to maintain the continuity of the so-called “unipolar moment.” The inclination to seek everlasting primacy has not served the nation well during the past few decades. The “unipolar moment” and its various supporting rationales precipitated countless and costly military interventions—most of them unsuccessful—and also have spurred intense, precarious strategic rivalries. A similarly sweeping strategy, the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, first written in 2018 but declassified in early January 2021, has many echoes of this 1992 progenitor but may have even more destructive consequences. Though the Biden administration has quickly distanced itself from many of the previous administration’s policies, these policy shifts have not focused on China. As the Biden administration begins a review of U.S. defense policy toward China and the broader region, it would do well to discard the Indo-Pacific strategy and start again with a more sound understanding of the political realities.

The authors of the Trump administration’s framework were evidently so pleased with the work that they thought it necessary to declassify it before leaving office and share it with the public, even though the general custom is to wait 30 years before declassification. But surely they also intended that the document might constrain and direct the Biden administration’s approach to U.S. strategy. The new document appears to build directly on the 1992 effort in that the first line of the document establishes the maintenance of “U.S. strategic primacy” in the region as the central challenge of U.S. policy.

Given that pursuing primacy as an end in itself could be seen as cynically self-aggrandizing (and perhaps explains why such documents are customarily classified), that objective is surrounded by many statements underlining the importance of countering Chinese “illiberal spheres of influence” and, moreover, pledging to “promote American values throughout the region.” The strategy represents a fusion of neoconservative and neoliberal thinking and may satisfy large segments of the foreign policy elite, orchestrating the design for a new cold war—this time focusing on China.

The authors of the document seem oblivious to its many contradictions. For example, the neo-Wilsonian tone of the strategy, which states as a goal a region in which “countries uphold the principles that have enabled U.S. and regional prosperity and stability, including … respect for individual rights and rule of law,” seems to fit poorly with a diverse region. Prospective partners for Washington range from very undemocratic (Vietnam) to immature democracies under grave threat (Philippines), to one-time democracies that have now given up all appearances (Thailand), to merely democracies on paper (Singapore). The strategy document appears amateurish in its understanding of international relations theory, as when it ignores completely the all-too-likely possibility of an acute security dilemma resulting from the unbridled U.S. quest for primacy. Likewise, the strategy seems to be ignorant of history, strongly advocating that South Korea and Japan must cooperate more fully as American alliance partners. That deeply troubled bilateral relationship, which is impeded by the legacies of a colonial relationship that involved many cruelties, hardly represents a strong foundation on which to rest America’s regional security architecture.

The above flaws are serious, but none could be described as fatal. The same could not be said regarding the document’s treatment of Taiwan. The island has befuddled American strategists for decades and their clever solution has been “strategic ambiguity,” balancing a general acceptance of China’s claim with a subtle hint of deterrence in the hope that the complex issue could be settled peacefully. The newly declassified strategy overtly codifies the deterrence aspect without even the slightest nod to Chinese claims—something acknowledged by American presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt. Discarding strategic ambiguity, as the Trump administration seemingly did in its last year in office, has put Washington and Beijing on a direct course for war. Some Americans seem to welcome that possibility, but they are not well informed about the military balance and likely scenarios. The truth is that the United States could very well lose such a war, a fact admitted in early 2021 by a senior Air Force official, and there is no telling whether nuclear weapons would be employed or not.

The Taiwan part of the former administration’s strategy is predictably reckless, but it is the India part of the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy that makes the least sense. India gets more attention in this strategy than any other partner, but is that particular country, charming and hefty as it might be, worthy of so much attention from U.S. national security officials? While its military is improving, to be sure, there are still many reasons to doubt New Delhi can wield genuinely formidable military forces. This is at least partially due to India’s unhealthy reliance on foreign suppliers for most weapons—a practice that inevitably leads to poor maintenance and substandard training. U.S. strategists have somewhat cynically hoped for escalating tensions in the Himalayas—the more so to distract China’s military from its maritime flank. The prospect of the Indian Navy sailing to the rescue in the South China Sea seems dubious, at best. A troubling strategic paradox, however, is that even if New Delhi can succeed in threatening China’s vulnerable energy “life-line” across the Indian Ocean, the reality of that threat currently seems to be at least partially fueling Beijing’s rapid naval buildup. By playing to Beijing’s worst fears regarding the so-called “Malacca Dilemma”—a potential blockade of the vast oil supplies heading to China through that narrow strait—planners in Washington and New Delhi are triggering a security dilemma for Beijing, causing it to take robust countermeasures.

In other words, Sino-Indian rivalry is not necessarily in the U.S. strategic interest. Most importantly, India has vast public health, education, infrastructure and environmental shortfalls that should preclude a responsible government in New Delhi from unloading billions of dollars for fancy American weaponry.

Washington’s surfeit of China hawks will inevitably use the newly declassified Indo-Pacific strategy as a means to pressure the incoming national security team, arguing that the strategy is sound even if implementation proved inconsistent. Indeed, even the hawkish Trump administration found the strategy was too bellicose, since Trump proved rightly hesitant about starting any new wars. It looked for a negotiated compromise on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and administration leaders also came to realize that pushing consistently against Beijing’s core interests might not facilitate reaching a workable trade accord.

In the end, the Indo-Pacific framework proved long on rhetoric and ideology, but failed to grapple seriously with the underlying changes in the regional balance of power that must occasion a new U.S. strategy based on realism and restraint. The Biden administration should not overlook the former strategy’s foundational weaknesses. The new team would be wise to junk the old strategy and start fresh.

Lyle J. Goldstein, Ph.D., is research professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute there and is also an affiliate of the college’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect any official assessment of the U.S. Navy.

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