Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy: An unserious strategy for deadly serious times

Released late last Friday, the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy repeats many of the same themes articulated by Presidents Obama and Trump. Still, it was not without some surprises. The timing of its release was odd. Even more notable is what it lacks: a practical plan to increase military deterrence in this key region.   

When official Washington wants to bury bad news or avoid media coverage of a problematic document, it typically releases them late on a Friday. In this case, the “Friday news dump” maneuver was accompanied by a newsworthy distraction: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was briefing reporters on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces nearly encircling Ukraine, U.S. diplomats and citizens ordered to leave and U.S. forces flowing to nearby NATO countries, the administration could not have picked a time better calculated to undercut the strategy’s assertion that the “Indo-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world,” — a statement that seems a bit incongruous when Russia is on the verge of a further invasion of Ukraine.

It’s unclear why the administration would wish to divert attention away from a key regional strategy, but the gambit was largely successful. Except for diligent defense outlets and the Asian press, the strategy’s release received little national attention.

Another timing oddity is that the administration opted to release a regional strategy before unveiling its overarching National Security Strategy. Law requires incoming presidents to produce a new National Security Strategy with a comprehensive accounting of U.S. interests, goals and objectives as well as the proposed uses of all elements of national power to achieve those goals. (We’ve been told Biden’s National Security Strategy will be released in the first quarter of 2022 and that its delay is a result of Putin’s inconvenient belligerence.) The National Security Strategy is the umbrella framework under which both regional strategies (e.g., Indo-Pacific strategy) and functional strategies (e.g., countering pandemics) operate and are understood. Releasing the Indo-Pacific strategy before the National Security Strategy robs it of the necessary context.

While the timing and manner of release is unfortunate, by far the most disappointing element of the strategy is the naivete it displays regarding what is necessary to deter Chinese aggression. Rather than describe how the U.S. will convince China it cannot be successful in its efforts to coerce its neighbors, the strategy merely sings a paean to the benefits of strong alliances and diplomacy. 

To be sure, strong alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other partners such as the Philippines offer the United States great military and diplomatic advantages. No effort should be spared to improve and enlarge these relationships. 

But as many have noted, the U.S. has failed to keep pace with the growth in the Chinese military, especially its navy and air forces. Consequently, the U.S. can no longer take strategic success as a given in the competition with Beijing. The Chinese navy is now numerically the largest in the world. The Chinese outdo the U.S. in shipbuilding, missiles and air defenses. 

When considering the task before the U.S., former Pentagon strategist Elbridge Colby in his recent book “The Strategy of Denial” recommends “America’s best military strategy is a denial defense, or a strategy that seeks to deny China’s ability to use military force to achieve its political objectives.” 

But other than vague references to “integrated deterrence” as the “cornerstone” of the administration’s approach, the strategy is devoid of any suggestion that the U.S. will commit itself to building sufficient credible military power in the region. There is, for example, no mention of building a strong, capable navy or the strike capabilities sufficient to dissuade Chinese leadership from choosing the path of aggression. Indeed, the strategy provides no reason to believe that the U.S will be ultimately successful in preventing China from seizing Taiwan or its other neighbors.

Americans and allies searching for assurances that the U.S. will be regionally present with the necessary military forces to deter China will not find them in the new Indo-Pacific strategy. It’s a unserious strategy for deadly serious times. 

Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Thomas Spoehr is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

Tags China Indo-Pacific Indo-Pacific allies Jake Sullivan Military strategy National Security Strategy Vladimir Putin

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