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An F-35C Lightning II launches off the flight deck of US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in October. The US Navy said the carrier strike group was part of a response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Photo: US Navy

New US Indo-Pacific strategy includes a stronger presence in Southeast Asia

  • Many of the strategy’s provisions appear aimed at countering China’s economic clout, military power and Belt and Road Initiative
  • ‘This is not our China strategy,’ says a senior US official, but ‘it clearly identifies China as one of the challenges that the region faces’
US President Joe Biden’s administration released its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy on Friday, one that leans heavily on alliances, military deterrence and a stronger presence in Southeast Asia to counter China’s growing regional and global footprint.

American officials have stressed that China is not the sole focus of their regional initiatives. But many of the strategy’s provisions – including a larger role for European allies in the Taiwan Strait and beyond, as well as stronger regional trade, economic and infrastructure linkages and an empowered India – appeared squarely aimed at countering China’s economic clout, military power and Belt and Road Initiative.

“This is not our China strategy,” said a senior US official. But “it clearly identifies China as one of the challenges that the region faces and in particular the rise of China, China’s much more assertive and aggressive behaviour.”

In a bid to support the administration’s outlined pivot to Asia – even as the chaotic pull-out from Afghanistan, Iran nuclear concerns and risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine demand Washington’s immediate attention – the plan pledges to open new US embassies and consulates throughout the region, expand the Peace Corps, launch an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and expand the role of the US Coast Guard.


US submarine strikes unknown underwater object in disputed South China Sea

US submarine strikes unknown underwater object in disputed South China Sea

The US also said it hoped to change conditions outside China rather than trying to alter Beijing’s thinking. “Our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favourable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share,” it said.

In a separate briefing on Friday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said China would pay a price for supporting Russia if Moscow decides to invade Ukraine.

“To the extent that they are giving a wink and a nod, or a green light, to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, for no justified reason, I believe that China will ultimately come to suffer consequences as a result of that in the eyes of the rest of the world,” he said.

Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, speaks during a news conference on Friday. Photo: EPA/Bloomberg

Sullivan added that if Russia invades, China would not be able to fully compensate Moscow for its economic losses from sanctions and export controls, given that the US and allies arrayed against it have more than 50 per cent of global GDP combined.

“China and Russia are less than 20 per cent,” Sullivan said. “We are well situated to be able to deal with any threat or challenge that would be posed to us by any autocracy in the world, including the two that you just mentioned.”

Most tenets of Friday’s 12-page strategy – released more than a year into the Biden administration’s tenure – have been well telegraphed, including a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the importance of alliances and multilateral participation after years of America First policies under Donald Trump’s administration.

The delay in releasing the blueprint reflects the coordination required across US agencies and among countries in the region and beyond to build consensus and include disparate views, the senior official said.

“We have to work close with our allies and partners, and I think that is something that is very much baked into this,” said the official.

US ‘allowed’ Beijing’s South China Sea expansion: Australian minister

Evident from the plan and its call for closer US integration with other players is a reality that the US can no longer check an increasingly emboldened China by itself.

Among those tapped for closer regional partnerships included the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the North American Treaty Organisation, the United Kingdom, France, and Quad alliance members Japan, India and Australia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a sweep through the region that dovetails with the strategy’s release, met with representatives from the Quad nations in Australia on Friday.

He will formally unveil the strategy at a stop in Fiji on Saturday before travelling to Hawaii to meet with counterparts from Japan and South Korean officials on North Korean’s increasingly provocative missile launches.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi speak after a meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Melbourne on Friday. Photo: Reuters

In a bid to avoid issues that could undermine an integrated regional strategy, the report also called for efforts to strengthen relations between Japan and South Korea, which have been strained by trade and related concerns.

Officials also cited the importance of US renewal, including investments in America’s own crumbling infrastructure, to better lead from a position of strength.

While allies have welcomed the Biden administration’s global focus, some have expressed concern that the deeply divided US electorate could lead to policy reversals after the 2024 election, undermining continuity. The senior official sidestepped a question on whether Friday’s policy would outlast the current administration.

The report included strong language on defence issues, with calls for greater coordination “across war-fighting domains” to ensure allies can “dissuade or defeat aggression in any form”, including attempt to alter territorial boundaries or undermine the rights of sovereign nations at sea.

US$100 million Patriot missile service deal is show of support: Taiwan

Underscoring that commitment, the US on Monday approved the sale of US$100 million in hardware and services to support a Patriot missile system Taiwan wants to acquire. And on Thursday it gave the green light to a US$13.9 billion sale of 36 advanced F-15 fighter jets to Indonesia.

The US also sees the recently announced Aukus alliance involving the US, Australia and Britain as a key part of its deterrence against any Chinese military adventurism. This includes plans for Canberra to acquire a fleet of US designed nuclear-powered submarines, extending its reach far beyond that nation’s shores.

Friday’s strategy also includes a long list of proposed regional initiatives involving technology, the pandemic, cybersecurity, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, governance, supply chain resiliency and climate change.

“What we want to do is to make sure that we are building on the long-standing track record while at the same time updating our approach to deal with the challenges today, which obviously include China,” said the senior US official.