The Biden administration on Wednesday pledged to a “most robust” military presence in the Indo-Pacific as well as in Europe, asserting the “deepest connection” with the two globally significant regions in a guidance report that outlined for the first time President Joe Biden’s national security strategy.
The 21-page paper — titled “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” — also stated the Biden administration’s aim to “deepen” ties with India as a part of the strategy.
The report portrayed an “increasingly assertive” China and “destabilising” Russia as main adversaries confronting the United States, but it clearly held the former as the more consequential of the two.
China is “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”, the report said.
The US pivot to Asia — in response to and as an acknowledgement of China as a growing threat — started under Barack Obama, and then gathered steam on Donald Trump’s watch with, among other things, the renaming of the US military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. It has been taken to a different level by the Biden administration, accorded the same significance as Europe, which has dominated US diplomatic and military thinking and spending for more than a century now, starting with World War I.
The paper outlines President Biden’s approach to tackling a whole range of national security issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery, climate change, immigration, racial injustice, challenges to democracy and the rise of extremism at home and their external manifestations abroad, and global issues such as proliferation, trade pacts and agreements, and multilateral forums such as the UN, the WHO and the WTO.
The report is premised on, as it said, on “a basic truth: in today’s world, economic security is national security”.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken summarised the Biden administration’s approach at some length in his first major foreign policy speech just hours before the release of the report, saying, “The interim guidance lays out the global landscape as the Biden administration sees it, explains the priorities of our foreign policy — and specifically how we will renew America’s strength to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of our time.”
Ties with India came up in a section of the report that describes Biden’s commitment to reengaging the world, reversing predecessor Trump’s “America First” policy, and to rebuilding alliances and partnerships to leverage their collective negotiating clout to confront China and other challenges.
As the US will seek to rebuild partnerships — clearly the second tier of relationships after treaty allies and alliances such as Japan, South Korea and Nato — the report said, “We will recognise that our vital national interests compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.”
The report went on to add, “We will deepen our partnership with India and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states, to advance shared objectives.”
The pitch for Indo-Pacific was significant, especially for an administration that came in looking, to critics, somewhat unsure and confused on this issue. “Asia-Pacific”, a phrase favoured by Beijing as an alternative to “Indo-Pacific”, had popped up frequently in remarks and speeches by top Biden appointees initially. Officials and commentators in India and the Indo-Pacific countries — especially in Japan and Australia, which are member countries of the Quad grouping, were worried.
The Biden administration took note. And “Asia-Pacific” gradually fell out of use.
The report also talks about sealing a strategic shift, adding, “We will recognise that our vital national interests compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.”
And it will translate into military terms. While addressing issues such as military interventions — as opposed to “forever wars” but keen to continue battling terrorists — the report said, “as we position ourselves to deter our adversaries and defend our interests, working alongside our partners, our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe”.
The Biden administration also pledged to take on China more aggressively, as detailed by the guidance, than indicated before: “We will support China’s neighbours and commercial partners in defending their rights to make independent political choices free of coercion or undue foreign influence.”
That was a barely concealed reference to countries that China has entrapped into sovereignty-compromising debts through its predatory one-belt-one-road initiative. Pakistan is one of the victims though it will not acknowledge it.