Biden’s dilemma in the Indo-Pacific

The area where the challenge is the greatest

The Indo-Pacific in the current international arena has paramount importance for the USA. The USA in 2018 had $940 billion in foreign direct investment in the Indo-Pacific region. The region has distinctive characteristics, connecting a large swathe of the world and becoming an epicentre of 21st century attention. Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State under former President Donald Trump, in 2018 maintained that “The American people and the whole world have a stake in the Indo-Pacific’s peace and prosperity,”

In the USA, whoever comes into power, containment of China, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, remains the top priority of US foreign policy. Joe Biden has already assumed the charge as President after his predecessor took a belligerent stance against Beijing, unilaterally imposing tariffs on the trade and technologies of China. In order to build a strategic consensus among the regional allies in the Indo-Pacific, Trump stressed the slogan of a “shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

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Washing away the disarray created by Trump in the Indo-Pacific region appears to be an uphill task for Biden. As vice president in the Obama Administration, he played a significant role in the implementation of ‘Pivot to Asia’, and now has picked Kurt Campbell, a veteran foreign policy expert, as “Indo-Pacific coordinator” to concentrate on challenges emanating from China in the Indo-Pacific region. In the Obama Administration, Campbell worked as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and is believed to have guided President Obama to frame the “Pivot to Asia”. Biden and Campbell are fully cognizant of the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the challenges for the USA in the region. However, the query remains whether the Biden Administration follow the footsteps of the Trump Administration in the Indo-Pacific region.

Biden is predicted to be going to implement the 2018 US National Security Strategy (NSS), which focuses on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and terms China as a geostrategic competitor of the USA. If the USA moves towards implementation of NSS with a deteriorating economy amid covid-19, it would be Following a fatal trajectory to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. According to the International Monetary Fund, the US economy in the second quarter of 2020 had shrunk more than 30 percent and was predicted to be contracting 8 percent in 2020 overall. The contracting US economy was a result of the Trump Administration’s trade war with China and its mishandling of the pandemic. Te maintaining of US military forces in the Middle East and Europe, and the speedy Chinese military modernization makes it further difficult for the USA to position itself in the Indo-Pacific region. The USA under Biden, with increasingly shrinking military budgets and high debt levels, will presumably face an impasse in the Indo-Pacific region.

The stronger the economy, the better a state can accelerate its economic and political clout. China with a robust economy will influence the Indo-Pacific region economically and politically, intensifying hardships for Biden administration.

The US foreign policy, as far as the Biden Administration is concerned, will remain unchanged for India. However, some discomfort zones could cause a divergence of interest between them. New Delhi, under the Trump Administration, confronted the US trade tariff and intellectual property protection controversies. Meanwhile, Biden has already expressed discontentment over growing violence against minorities and the worsening state of press freedom in India. Differences between Biden and Indian PM Narendra Modi on trade and human rights are serious, and could trigger a degree of friction. The USA, under the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), might sanction the Indian purchase of major defence systems, including the S-400 air defence system, from Russia. Sanctioning of S-400 by the Biden Administration will make ties with New Delhi deteriorate, presenting an image of the USA as an unreliable partner of India in the Indo-Pacific region.

Under the Biden Presidency, the USA is likely to face another dilemma, that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states whose important players were alienated by Trump. Vietnam, one of the main countries of ASEAN embroiled with China in the South China Sea dispute, currently considers the USA as an untrustworthy partner, and looks elsewhere for support to counter China. Hanoi, instead of the USA, looks towards Japan and India. New Delhi has carried out numerous maritime defence engagements with Hanoi. Vietnam also has engaged with Japan in several maritime patrols, and is expected to be signing an advanced defence equipment deal in the foreseeable future with Tokyo. For the three consecutive years, Trump in his Presidency was reluctant to participate in the annual summit of ASEAN.

Surprisingly, in the same week, China jumped at the opportunity by signing a trade pact with 14 other Asian states. Trump’s reckless policies left a vacuum for China that has become a considerable player in the region. According to a survey of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies published in 2020, ASEAN states view Beijing as having more political power compared to Washington in Southeast Asia. ASEAN states have surpassed the European Union as China’s major trading partners. Biden in 2020 reiterated that the U.S. must “get tough with China,” and his goal as being to “place the United States back at the head of the table.” Getting tougher on China seems to be irritating ASEAN states as their economic and political dependency on China is enhancing by leaps and bounds.

The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which are considered the world’s largest economic blocs, paved the way for the expediting of China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region and bringing vital players of the Indo-Pacific region under the tutelage of the USA would be an acid test for the Biden Administration.

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In short, the economy and politics are intertwined. The stronger the economy, the better a state can accelerate its economic and political clout. China with a robust economy will influence the Indo-Pacific region economically and politically, intensifying hardships for Biden administration.

Dost Muhammad Barrech
Dost Muhammad Barrech
The writer can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Biden is clever. and Seasoned politician. He will not alienate India. He kkknows that means good bye Indo Pacific plans. Without whole hearted Indian support USA is now impotent in Indo pacific to counter China.

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