The US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy: Implications for China (2017-present)

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Maheera Munir, Aiysha Safdar

 Abstract

The Indo-Pacific region is becoming the focal point of strategic competition in the 21st century. The region, previously limited to the Asia-Pacific, has evolved into a wider geographical and geopolitical realm, thanks to the unparalleled economic, political, military, and diplomatic growth of China over the past three decades. Since 2006-07, the region is receiving wider attention from the United States and its regional allies – Japan, Australia, and India. While the term Indo-Pacific has been developing into a geopolitical discourse since then, it came to the surface in the United States in 2017 as Trump administration assumed power. The United States views the rise of China as a threat to its liberal rules-based order and global hegemony. This article deals with the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) formulated by Trump administration in November 2017 and reformulated by Biden administration in February 2021 to counter growing China’s assertiveness in the region, which China calls its ‘peaceful rise’. To achieve its goals, the United States heavily relies on its strategic partners, each of which has a different interpretation of the Indo-Pacific. Ineffectiveness of various bilateral and multilateral engagements along with the implemental limitations of the Indo-Pacific strategy itself has, so far, failed to bring negative implications for China. This puts the future regional order of the Indo-Pacific in a jeopardy. The regional actors are not willing to become a tool of the US or China in balancing each other’s threats indirectly. This leaves us to assuming that the Indo-Pacific region is most likely to observe a multilateral order in years to come. Given the criticalness of the situation, both the United States and China should opt for a cooperation mechanism rather than containment strategies to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Keywords:    Asia-Pacific, Free and Open Indo-Pacific, United States, China, QUAD, Regional Order, Maritime Cooperation

                                                                                                                                               

*Maheera Munir is a post-graduate student in the Department of International Relations, Kinnaird College for Women Lahore.

**Dr. Aiysha Safdar is PhD in International Relation & Head of Department in the Department of International Relations, Kinnaird College for Women Lahore.

  1. Introduction

As the world order changed after collapse of USSR in 1991, the US has been enjoying its position as the global hegemon. Only a decade later, China grew to be the second largest economic power in 1999. Today, China has its foothold in every region around the world. It has been doing great in maintaining diplomatic ties, security alliances and economic investments. These rapid economic, political and security achievements of China are putting US in a difficult position as the hegemon. As the world has moved from traditional means of warfare to non-conventional approaches like economic and cyber warfare, US has been adopting strategic measures to counter China’s growing power and threat in Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.

With increasing globalization, interdependence and modern security trends, it became important to balance the threat rather than balance the power. The balance of power theory suggests that states ensure and protect their survival through military power and resources only. However, Stephen Walt put forward the concept of balance of threat in 1987 stating that states try to increase their capabilities based on the perceived threats instead of power the other state holds. While balance of power resorts only to military aspect, balance of threat encompasses all the domains including economic, political, and non-conventional, all of which add to the resources of a state. As the aggregate power of China increased, its military power enhanced and it became capable of acting offensively due to exponential growth in its naval power, the US perceived security threats from China in all the domains be it politics, economy, or military.

Ever since, it has been shaping strategies to balance China’s threat such as A Cooperative Strategy for 21st century Seapower (CS21) formulated by US in 2007, the Defense and Strategic Guide 2011, the Asia pivot strategy 2012 which mentioned India as the ‘regional anchor’ and ‘broad security provider for Indian Ocean Region’ and A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower Forward Engaged Ready (CS21R) in 2015 that put forward American concerns regarding increasing China’s assertiveness. As Chinese threats to India increased and needs for US strategic cooperation enhanced, India revised its maritime doctrine in 2015 to broaden its area of security interest from Horn of Africa to Western Pacific. Through China’s Anti-Access and Anti-Denial strategy (A2/AD) in the South China Sea, China has projected the possible expansion of its sea denial rhetoric to the Indo-Pacific in order to protect its sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). With the Trump administration in power since 2017, the threat of China’s power is being taken more seriously. The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) descripted China as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power. The most recent US strategy to counter China’s influence is Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) that covers Mekong states and Pacific Island states as well as South Asia.

Through its Indo-Pacific strategy, US has been trying to curb China’s growing influence. So far, China has responded to the strategy diplomatically under its Peaceful Coexistence foreign policy and has followed its principles of mutual respect, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference, and mutual benefits. This study seeks to investigate the transformation of strategic thinking that changed Asia-Pacific into a broader and more significant region, the Indo-Pacific. Next, it addresses the underlying aims of US behind the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. It examines the credibility and effectiveness of bilateral and multilateral engagements in the Indo-Pacific under FOIP to counter China’s growing power. It further analyses economic, political and security implications for China under US Indo-Pacific strategy as well as how the current rules-based regional order is more likely to change into a multipolar order. Lastly, it evaluates how far US has been successful in containing China’s rise.

  1. Transformation of Strategic Thinking: From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific

The concept of Indo-Pacific came forward as a progress in the traditional ‘Asia-Pacific’ approach which solely focused on United States and its East Asian allies in the region – Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam. However, with the economic and political advancements, the center of gravity has extended to the West. The region includes nine out of the ten busiest seaports of the world are in Indo-Pacific region. This accounts for approximately 60% of the global maritime trade through Asian region, with South China Sea alone acting as the transit for one-third of the global shipping.[1] The emergence of new economic and political actors (China, India, and Asian Tigers) along with the changing trends in the international political economy, the entire region from Horn of Africa to Western Pacific has evolved to be of great strategic significance.

It all began in 2006-07 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in the Indian parliament on the “Confluence of the two seas”. He emphasized on the increasing politico-economic connectivity and interdependence between the two oceans, calling the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean as a single space. However, the idea came to the surface again in 2011 when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term Indo-Pacific while speaking to the public of how US is pivot to Asia. For the first time, the term Indo-Pacific officially appeared neither in Japan nor US but Australia’s white paper Australia in the Asian century in 2012. With increasing regional focus of the term, India also contributed to Indo-Pacific discourse by including the term in its 2015 maritime strategy Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy.[2]

However, Indo-Pacific made it to the foreign policy discourse for the very first time in 2016 as Japan announced its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, later persistently discussed at IISS Shangri-la Dialogue as an attempt to counter Chinese power and influence in the region. During his address at APEC summit in November 2017, President Trump mentioned “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as the focal element of US policy towards Asia. The very next month, in December 2017, the United States released its National Security Strategy, documenting the term Indo-Pacific officially for the very first time, thus bringing the Indo-Pacific into a true geopolitical context.[3]  QUAD, re-established after negotiations in November 2017 that brought regional democracies, Japan, Australia, and India together with U.S. and later the AUKUS alliance under President Biden highlight the continued strategic efforts towards Chinese containment in the Indo-Pacific.

The transformation over strategic thinking has directed geopolitical focus towards the Indo-Pacific but the Chinese officials have been quite passive in response to the use of this term by the United States and its regional allies. As early as 2018, the foreign minister of China Wang Yi rejected the notion of the Indo-Pacific, calling it merely an idea to grab popular attention.[4] Chinese scholars and officials have repeatedly regarded the idea as United States’ attempt to establish a grand alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, use India as a tool to balance Chinese threat, declare cold war in a new style, or simply find a better cooperative space between United States and China. However, with the strengthening geopolitical context of the term, Chinese thinktanks are now working on developing a refined perspective towards Indo-Pacific. Having played the most crucial role in making Indo-Pacific region the strategic centre of gravity, it is impossible for China to ignore the regional developments taking place over the Indo-Pacific idea.[5]

  1. Theoretical Framework: Balance of Threat

Stephen M. Walt developed a countertheory to Balance of Power known as the Balance of Threat in his work Origin of Alliances (1987) as he asserted that states react to threats, not to power. So, states tend to form alliances or coalitions against a rising state that threatens their national interests and sovereignty. Balancing means that states tend to ally against a potential hegemon before it becomes too strong to ensure their survival. So, as a safe strategy, it is better to align with the likeminded states that are perceiving similar kinds of threats. The alternative to balancing act is band wagoning under which states ally with the rising threat rather than against it in order to protect their interests and ensure their survival. However, as per Walt, states are more likely to balance rather than bandwagon because of the changing intentions and unreliable perceptions.[6] The bigger the perceived threat, the bigger is the need to balance it. Four elements, according to Walt, define perceived threats:

i. Aggregate power (how powerful the threatening state is, in terms of size, population, economic capabilities and latent power)

ii. Geographical proximity (how close is it)

ii. Offensive capabilities (the extent of its military might)

iv. Offensive intentions (the extent of its aggressive actions)

The aggregate power is the overall power that a state can wield and due to the threat, this power may become a motive for either balancing or band wagoning. If states are threatened from a proximate power in a regional framework, they will align in response to those threats. If a state has a large offensive capability, they often provoke an alliance rather than those who are capable of only defending. States may balance this threat by allying with others or may also be forced to bandwagon because one’s allies may not be able to provide assistance quickly enough and hence for the vulnerable states, there is little hope in resisting. If states appear aggressive, they provoke a balancing action by other states. China’s rise in the international system as a whole is economically driven and US is balancing the threat both internally and externally.

Internally, through building its own military strength

Externally, through its allies and partners

The four elements of threat perception put forward by Walt have made regional actors like India and Japan more threatened by Chinese power than the US power in the Indo-Pacific. This mutual concern for the threat posed by China has cultivated in the form of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, its formal alliances, and implicit strategic partnerships, all to contain and balance the Chinese threat. John Mearsheimer took this very balancing theory into account when he said that ‘most of Beijing’s neighbours will join the US to contain Chinese power’.[7]

  1. Credibility and Implications of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) for China

The United States sees China’s economic and military actions and assertiveness as a threat to the liberal rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. United States is under the perception that increased China’s foothold will constraint US’ role as the global hegemon. The 2017 US National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy put special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region, calling China a revisionist power and stressing upon the need to limit Chinese expansionism and assertiveness. Both these strategies called for a specific US policy for the Indo-Pacific region to deter Chinese aggression. Thus, came forward US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP). In order to achieve the Indo-Pacific agenda, the US has relied on two key tools: bilateral relationship and multilateral engagements across military, political, economic, and diplomatic domains.

a. Bilateral Relationships: United States has further narrowed down its relationships to bilateral level in order to develop closer cooperation with the significant regional actors. This includes the 5 most crucial allies – Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, and Taiwan. Over the years, United States have had a number of bilateral deals and partnerships with Japan. The recent ones to strengthen the initiative of Indo-Pacific strategy are Strategic Energy Partnership and Strategic Digital Economy Partnership, extending from Indo-Pacific to Africa.

Other than that, US is largely focusing on growing its partnership with India. Under 2+2 Dialogue in 2018, US and India have strengthened their defense and economic ties. India also purchased $16 billion worth of defense weapons and $6.2 billion of mineral fuel products to secure US India Strategic Energy Partnership. Interestingly, US and India have also signed a $1.5 billion project for development of Earth observation satellite, NISAR.[8]

b. Multilateral Engagements: While ASEAN, Lower Mekong Initiative and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) are popular multilateral engagements of US, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue – US, Japan, and Australia – has always been a crucial nexus in the Indo-Pacific. So far, this multilateral initiative has received highest attention from US, Japan, and Australia. Each state has its own points of conflict and threat perceptions when it comes to China. While there are some diverging interests, the element of countering China alone has proved to be enough in bringing these actors to the table. Interestingly, India has also become a part of this strategic dialogue and its involvements in various meetings throughout 2018 and 2019 resulted in Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad Alliance.[9]

c. Credibility of the QUAD Alliance: While Quad is seen as a security alliance to further strategic interests of four partners in the region as an attempt to balance Chinese threat and bring success to FOIP, there are many limitations to the Quad initiative due to differences in the Indo-Pacific ideology of each actor. These differences occur due to:

i. Geographical understanding of the Indo-Pacific region

ii. Varying degree of threat perceptions that each actor has in relation to China

d. Geographical understanding of the Indo-Pacific Region: When it comes to geography, every actor of Quad has a different interpretation of the Indo-Pacific, based on its strategic interests. For United States, Indo-Pacific stretches from Pacific to India, not touching the Eastern coast of Africa. For Australia, the idea of Indo-Pacific remains confined to the region between Australian coast and African coast. Japan has the broadest view of Indo-Pacific. For Japan, Indo-Pacific includes all the Pacific nations, East Asian nations, South Asian nations, and much of African nations. India, however, focuses on a limited region of the Indo-Pacific, including its immediate Pacific and Indian Ocean neighbourhood.[10] Such great differences in the geographical understanding of the Indo-Pacific reflect that each actor looks forward to meets its own interests in the region and the Quad is just a supporting bloc for the Indo-Pacific idea. The following map depicts geographical interpretation of each actor regarding Indo-Pacific:

Figure 1. Geographical interpretation of the Indo-Pacific region (Heiduk & Wacker, 2020)

e. Individual Threats and Challenges: Moving forth, each state has a varying degree of threats and challenges that it wants to balance against China. States like Japan and India share territorial disputes with China and so, consider territorial factor as a critical element of their Indo-Pacific ideology. For Australia, the factor of bilateral trade relations with China are impossible to ignore or end. For United States, geographical non-proximity, focus on the “security” elements alone, and limitations of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy are some factors that challenge the credibility of the Quad.

Japan and China are involved in a territorial conflict over Senkaku islands. Since Japan nationalized Senkaku islands in 2012, the conflict has intensified. Chinese vessels and maritime forces operate deliberately within the territorial sea of islands, claiming the area as its own. With lesser capability to counter China directly, Japan is limited in its actions.  Somewhat similar is the case of India. It also shares a territorial dispute with China over Arunachal Pradesh in India, which China claims to be its part of Southern Tibet, and Aksai Chin in China, which India claims to be a part of Indian Occupied Kashmir. As we look into the state capacity, India has improved its warfare capabilities and infrastructure since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. However, the pace of military modernization of China is comparatively quite higher. Also, both India and China are nuclear states. Any case of conventional war between India and China can turn into a nuclear war, causing equal damage on both sides – a situation which both countries prefer to avoid. This leaves India with playing a little role as the broad security provider in the region.

Australia, another proponent of Quad, finds itself in a complex regional environment. Even though Australia does not have any territorial conflict with China, it is reluctant of military participation in Quad. Well, the reasons are merely economic. Australian economy is itself largely dependent on trade with China. As of 2019, Chinese exports account for 7% of Australia’s GDP. Australia has its largest share of export with China, approximately 36% and China is the biggest market of Australian coal, gas, and iron ore. Lately, China has taken firm actions against states that have retaliated against its actions and developments in South China Sea and East China Sea such as banning banana imports from Philippines and banning rare earths exports to Japan, respectively. China also imposed economic sanctions against South Korea over its military deployments. Australia fears that it will become the part of the list if it directly stands against China thus, restricting military participation of Australia in Quad.[11]

Last but not the least, US has its own limitations when it comes to the Quad. The US does not share geographical proximity and so, is heavily dependent on its allies to balance growing Chinese threats – the burden which its strategic partners are not yet ready to bear. Moreover, the Quad Alliance is merely a form of security alliance based on the principle of ‘containment’ instead of ‘cooperation and containment’.[12] Here, US needs to realize that in order to balance perceived Chinese threats, forming a strict security alliance is alone not enough and there is a need to focus more on economic element. China’s policy of mutual cooperation and non-intervention is a witness that China has never taken an aggressive toll against any country in the first place.[13] Therefore, China is least likely to launch a military attack on US or any of its allies in the region. Thus, the rebalancing strategy of the United States is flawed, questioning the core purpose of the Quad Alliance and reflecting poor credibility of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

  1. The New Indo-Pacific Strategy Under Biden Administration and AUKUS

In February 2021, Biden administration formulated the new Indo-Pacific strategy which continues to emphasise on bilateral relationships (with a special emphasis on India) and multilateral alliances. However, it has signalled the plans for establishment of an Indo-Pacific economic framework since the biggest threat from China comes from its economic developments and BRI. Moreover, the new Indo-Pacific strategy has also focused on inclusion of European partners in the region as evident from the AUKUS alliance between the US, UK, and Australia.[14] While, in addition to cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence, AUKUS aims at providing Australia with a nuclear-powered submarine, it is important to note here that China already possesses 6 nuclear-propelled submarines and 4 nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarines.[15] However, to what extent AUKUS turns out to be an effective security pact still remains to be seen.

  1. Chinese developments in the Indo-Pacific amid US counteractions

As China turned from an agricultural economy to industrial economy in late 1990s, its pace of development has taken a toll. The 21st century witnessed rapid economic growth, establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations and increasing military and naval power. Here’s how China has continued to advance its military, economic, and political developments while the United States attempts to create alliances, formulate strategic partnerships, and take part in regional architecture:

a. Military Modernization: The military presence of China in the Indo-Pacific started increasing in 2008 as a fight against piracy. Over the last decade, China has been building its navy to secure its economic, trade, and strategic interests. While the Chinese national defense strategy Fighting Regional Informatized War previously focused on building military presence in the Pacific Ocean, it was updated in 2015 to increase its dimensional focus from Pacific Ocean to Indian and Pacific Ocean, thus covering the entire Indo-Pacific region.

The strategy now includes a significant concept ‘frontier defense’ which relates to the expansion of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Indo-Pacific region. China regards it naval expansion to protection of its sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) spread across Indian ocean and South China Sea. This is important in order to secure 85% of its oil imports that take place through Indian Ocean, heavily dominated by Indian Navy. Moreover, South China Sea covers a large part of China’s Maritime Silk Road and so, it reflects the need to protects its SLOCs.[16]

The naval modernization of China exhibits two major goals: establishment of a forward naval presence to counter aggression and development of long-range power-projection capabilities to ensure powerful naval presence. This includes offensive as well as defensive weapons to protect areas of China’s maritime interests. China has expressed its determination to strengthen its security in the Indo-Pacific by increasing the capabilities and number of its nuclear-powered submarines, surface combat ships, aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), mid-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), and ballistic missile launch submarines.[17]

Other than that, it has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea and militarizing them heavily. The military bases and naval dockyards in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands are posing great security threats to the neighbouring states. In May 2016, China made the largest deployments in South China Sea, Western Pacific Ocean, and Indian Ocean. In December 2016, its first aircraft carrier conducted several training exercises in the region, adding to its capabilities and naval expertise. PLAN aims at launching its first nuclear-powered aircraft by 2025. This will largely increase its naval capabilities and defensive posture in the Indo-Pacific, presenting grave threats for the regional states. China’s modern intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as DF-26 come with a high range of nuclear strike within 4,023 km. These are capable to attack and cause significant damage to central India, Straits of Malacca, and Guam, if launched from Hainan Island. Its other strategic ICBMs such as DF-41 possess a range of 12,000 km to 15,000 km and have a huge nuclear payload capacity of 2,500 kg.[18]

Now, China is also establishing its bases on islands in the Indian Ocean. Given these military capabilities, China is strongly influencing the trade routes of Indo-Pacific region. It exerts control over the most significant ports from the Gulf of Aden to Strait of Malacca. China has put special emphasis on the military deployment in South China Sea which projects direct threats to all the East Asian countries as well as the mainland India.

b. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): The naval presence of China largely attributes to its economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. BRI plans to connect Asia to Europe, Africa, Middle East, and Americas, which will not only foster regional connectivity but aims at building global connectivity. In order to propagate its goal of a large, unified market, China has invested in the construction around 35 new ports across the world, out of which 14 are present in the Indo-Pacific region. It aims at investing in around 70 states and international organizations across the globe.[19]

Under BRI, China has launched multiple economic initiatives with the South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Out of all, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China’s investment in creating special economic zones (SEZs) in Gwadar and rebuilding the Gwadar port present great challenges for United States and its allies in the region, especially India. Mekong states have also received significant economic advantages from BRI. China is making huge investments in infrastructure, financing, and development in the Indo-Pacific. It has established great political and diplomatic ties to foster political and economic cooperation. China has made billions of dollars of investments in almost all the Southeast Asian states. Other than that, it has provided significant political and cultural support to the neighbouring countries in the region.[20]

BRI has proved to be a strong tool of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. The high degree of investments reflects that South Asian or Southeast Asian countries will not enter into any alliance against China aimed at countering the perceived Chinese threats. Or at least, this economic cooperation and agreements will ensure that these states maintain a neutral approach towards China’s advancements in the Indo-Pacific region and resulting Western aggression.

c. Diplomatic Support and Political Ties: China has extended political support to the countries in Indo-Pacific region along the Maritime Silk Route. Even though it continues to respect its foreign policy agendas of mutual non-interference, it now offers diplomatic support to its formal and informal allies on the territorial disputes and conflicts. This is evident from the case of Pakistan in Kashmir issue, Russia in Ukrainian crisis, Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh war, etc. Other than this, China has also established good diplomatic and economic ties with countries of Pacific insular region, covering the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and French Polynesia. Strengthening relations with these countries and offering direct investments is adding to Chinese access to natural resources, offering better exploitation opportunities.[21]

Altogether, China’s stable political relations with regional countries and archipelagos, the BRI with its economic investments and the increased naval capabilities of PLAN has led to a great geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific. While many states see it is a long-term economic opportunity, several of them are wary of Chinese growing influence in the region, especially United States and its major allies – India, Japan, and Australia. However, with poor degree of credibility of Quad alliance and limitations of the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, it does not seem that only the Indo-Pacific narrative can do much to reduce fast-paced Chinese developments in the region or balance the perceived Chinese threats of US and its regional partners.

  1. The Future Regional Order of the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is a combination of both land and maritime geographical area and has the claws of almost all the major and emerging powers in it. The regional order here is formed by the interactions among these strategic powerhouses and has evolved to become one of the most important centres of global economy and political influence. The region is highlighted in almost every country’s strategic book as an area of interest for maritime security, multilateral and commercial engagement, and capacity building. The current rules-based order, however, now faces imminent threats due to the emergence of a power that competes with the existing hegemon in terms of material capabilities. The unprecedented political, economic, and military developments of China in the Indo-Pacific has largely disturbed the existing regional structure The new regional order in Indo-Pacific is emerging due to increase in the relative power of China as opposed to the US in context of economy and security arrangements and primarily because of the operations carried out by China in violation of the international law, specifically the militarization of the South China Sea.

China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific can be accounted to Beijing’s understanding that the rules based order only serves the interests of those who get to set the rules and the idea is very western itself that rules are necessary for maintaining a degree of predictability in international affairs and hence, the Chinese political philosophy itself does not incline towards the idea of a rules-based order.[22] While prospects of continued American hegemonic presence have diminished and China faces several limitations in imposing a Chinese-led regional order, the question comes down to whether the Indo-Pacific will experience a bipolar or multipolar order in the foreseeable future.

In the case of bipolar vs multipolar order, the weight lies with the latter since it allows the regional states their freedom of action rather than being the pawns of the big powers in a bipolar order. We see China’s rise; however, it is being constantly challenged by the US as it struggles to maintain its presence in the region despite challenges at home and increasing global challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. A multipolar order in the region might play in favour of US since all the regional flags identify themselves as democratic and having such shared interests, India, Japan, Indonesia and others share US eagerness to balance China in the region. The regional order in this case would be equally held together by the regional states and US who would not enjoy the same agency as before but will be able to contain China.[23] So, a multipolar order would keep the region and its states safe from both the Beijing’s assertiveness and Washington’s unpredictability.

  1. Conclusion

The United States and China are engaged in a strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. At stake stand the contrasting visions and ideas about the rules, norms, and laws that will govern maritime affairs, trade, navigation, and stability of the region. With the rise of China as a regional power, now growing into a global power, the US perceives political, economic, and security threats from China in the Indo-Pacific, a region that has always been a keen priority for US to fulfil its national interests. The contemporary dynamics of the Indo-Pacific reflect how the United States is attempting to balance Chinese threat in the region since traditional material capabilities are unable to suppress Chinese developments.

In order to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region functions in accordance with the rules-based order, the US designed a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, under which the US plan of action remains bilateral and multilateral engagements to win enough allies in the region. While regional actors such as Japan, Australia, and India share the same Indo-Pacific vision of the Indo-Pacific as that of United States, the core realities are different. Each of these actors has a different geographical understanding of the Indo-Pacific as per their individual interests. The degree of threat perception also varies from one regional actor to another, based on their realist intentions, border disputes, trade activities, and economic reliance on China. While U.S has been engaged in several bilateral and multilateral engagements, the most significant one appears to be QUAD, the future prospects of which are not very likely to enable it to become a strong hedge against China. Moreover, the flaws of the US Indo-Pacific strategy show how it is totally uncompetitive, uncoordinated, inconsistent, underresourced, and to be blunt, counterproductive in bringing negative implications for China.

On the other hand, China continues to enhance its power and threat projection capabilities through naval modernization, military control of the South China Sea, BRI, trade agreements, and diplomatic relations with regional states. Such actions are a clear reflection of the failure of the Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s growing assertiveness. This does not only add to the Chinese threat but also puts the future of the Indo-Pacific in jeopardy. Given the increasing competition in the region, the ineffectiveness of US policies, and unprecedented growth of China, regional actors are ready to engage in a multipolar Indo-Pacific. The regional players such as India, Japan, and Australia find it in their best interest to maintain relations with both sides, avoid alliance formation and practice autonomy. Thus, the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has done one thing if nothing else – bringing regional actors into play and preventing the cold war scenario between China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific. This, along with inclusion of European actors, is exactly what seems to be the main objective of the new Indo-pacific strategy under Biden administration. However, to what extent is it successful in countering China remains a dilemma. Meanwhile, the US and China need to work on a cooperation mechanism instead of continued hedging and containment to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

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[1] United States. Department of Defense, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific Advancing a Shared Vision, (2019).

[2] India. Indian Navy. Directorate of Strategy; Concepts and Transformation, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, (2015).

[3] Felix Heiduk and Gudrun Wacker, From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific Significance, Implementation and Challenges, (Berlin: SWP German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2020), https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/research_papers/2020RP09_IndoPacific.pdf

[4] Rory Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics,” Politique étrangère 3, no. 3 (2019), https://doi.org/10.3917/pe.193.0049

[5] Baogang He, “Chinese Expanded Perceptions of the Region and Its Changing Attitudes Toward the Indo-Pacific: a Hybrid Vision of the Institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific,” East Asia 35, no. 2 (2018), doi:10.1007/s12140-018-9291-8.

[6] Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013)

[7] Andreas Bock and Ingo Henneberg, “Why Balancing Fails: Theoretical Reflections on Stephen M. Walt’ss Balance of Threat Theory,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2013, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2409228.

[8] United States. Department of State, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision, (2019).

[9] United States. Department of State, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

[10] Heiduk and Wacker, “From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific.”

[11] Lee Lavina, Assessing the QUAD: Prospects and Limitations of Quadrilateral Cooperation for Advancing Australia’s Interests, (Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2020), https://www.lowyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Lee%2C%20Assessing%20the%20Quad.pdf

[12] Jyotsna Mehra, The Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral: Dissectong the China factor, (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 2020), https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-australia-india-japan-us-quadrilateral/

[13] Wu Shicun and Jayanath Colombage, Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Response, (Washington DC: Institute for China-America Studies, Oct 2019), https://chinaus-icas.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Indo-Pacific-Strategy-and-Chinas-Response-Report-FINAL.pdf

[14] Carla Freeman, Daniel Markey, and Vikram J. Singh, A Closer Look at Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2022), https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/03/closer-look-bidens-indo-pacific-strategy

[15] Patrick M. Cronin et al., BEYOND THE SAN HAI: The Challenge of China’s Blue-Water Navy, (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2017), https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep06325.5.pdf.

[16] You Ji, “China’s Emerging Indo-Pacific Naval Strategy,” Asia Policy 22, no. 1 (2016), doi:10.1353/asp.2016.0035.

[17] Cronin, “Beyond the San Hai.”

[18] Thangavl Balasubramanium and Ashok Kumar Murugesan, “China’s Rising Missile and Naval Capabilities in the Indo-Pacific Region Security Implications for India and its Allies,” The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 3, no. 2 (2020), https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/2210972/chinas-rising-missile and-naval-capabilities-in-the-indo-pacific-region-security/

[19] Xue Gong, “China’s Economic Statecraft: The Belt and Road in Southeast Asia and the Impact on the Indo-Pacific,” Security Challenges 16, no. 3 (2020), https://www.jstor.org/stable/26924338

[20] Gong, “China’s Economic Statecraft.”

[21] David Scott, “China’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: The Problems of Success,” The Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies 6, no. 2 (2019), https://www.jstor.org/stable/26912752.

[22] Feng Zhang, “Chinese Visions of the Asian Political-Security Order,” Asia Policy 13, no. 2 (2018).

[23] Zack Cooper, “The Future Indo-Pacific Order,” Security Challenges 16, no. 3 (2020), https://www.jstor.org/stable/26924332