On February 11, the White House announced its new strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, which pledges support for regional connectivity, trade and investment, and deepening bilateral and multilateral partnerships. USIP’s Daniel Markey, Vikram J. Singh and Carla Freeman analyze the key priorities outlined in the document, and the strategic dynamics between the United States, India and China in the region.

President Joe Biden meets virtually with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, on monitor, as well the leaders of Japan and Australia, at the White House in Washington. March 12, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, on monitor, as well the leaders of Japan and Australia, at the White House in Washington. March 12, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

How does the administration’s strategy differ from, or build on, past U.S. administration policy toward the Indo-Pacific?

Markey: Much about the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy is familiar, starting with its emphasis on the centrality of the region to core U.S. interests and its forthright characterization of challenges posed by China. But the strategy differs from that of the Trump administration in at least two noteworthy ways. First, it places a greater emphasis on cooperation with regional allies and partners. Second, it flags plans for a forthcoming “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” that will emphasize “new approaches to trade that meet high labor and environmental standards.” As was true under Trump, Obama and Bush, the Biden White House has focused particular attention on “supporting India’s continued rise and regional leadership.”

Questions loom about whether this strategy can be implemented successfully. First, the administration’s plans to “drive new resources to the Indo-Pacific” could be delayed, derailed or shortchanged by the war in Ukraine, just as prior administrations found themselves preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Second, the central economic pillar of the regional strategy remains, for now, a vague “work in progress” and could face serious domestic political headwinds. Third, the administration’s emphasis on working with “open societies” and investing in “democratic institutions” will be tested by global patterns of democratic backsliding and illiberalism, including within some of the core Indo-Pacific partners named in the strategy.

Singh: Dan is right to note the focus on allies and partners. In particular, the role of smaller nations gets attention here in a way that previous strategies did not. The new strategy also explicitly welcomes growing European interest in Asia by endorsing the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It highlights the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) format as an example of an increasing European role in the U.S. approach to the region, and places top priority on tech cooperation between those three states. The administration notes the need to work with “partners inside and outside the region” to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait — a nod to expecting more of European partners even on the most high-stakes areas of disagreement with China, like the future of Taiwan.

The Biden administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific identifies strengthened U.S.-India cooperation as a key line of effort, in addition to the expansion of the Quad partnership. India had historically been reluctant to align closely with the United States — how do you anticipate the new strategy will be received by Indian officials, and what factors might facilitate or complicate this partnership over the next few years?

Singh: India has consistently welcomed deeper U.S. engagement in the region, and this strategy fits well with Indian strategic priorities. The strategy views building on “India’s continued rise and regional leadership” as one of 10 core lines of effort needed for success. The focus on priority areas advanced by India, including through its significant role in the Quad, offers a lot of areas for Indo-U.S. cooperation, from global health to climate to high tech to maritime security. India’s reluctance has been to alliances which suggest mutual dependence and a diminution of sovereignty through ironclad commitments. But New Delhi is enthusiastic about cooperation and partnership with the United States, with European partners and with ASEAN and other friends in Asia. The only obvious complicating factor in the near term for Indo-U.S. security ties is the prospect of U.S. sanctions over India’s longstanding defense ties with Russia.

Markey: Picking up on this, the war in Ukraine presents a special set of challenges for India and its relationship with the United States. In some ways, New Delhi and Washington are close partners. For instance, on March 3, the Quad leaders (India, Japan, Australia and the United States) met virtually and reiterated their commitment to “a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states is respected.” India has also sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In other ways, however, India finds itself alone among Quad members for not condemning Russia’s invasion outright, and New Delhi has abstained from U.N. votes against Russia. Senior U.S. officials have publicly explained that they are trying to shift New Delhi’s stance.

India is in a no-win situation with respect to Ukraine. On the one hand, its military depends on Russian-made equipment, both low-tech gear and new, highly sophisticated weapons like the S-400 missile defense system that is just arriving this year. If India takes a tough stance against Russia it could jeopardize that vital supply relationship at precisely the time New Delhi is facing an increasingly aggressive China on its border. On the other hand, India cannot be confident that Russia will remain a reliable defense supplier if international sanctions really begin to bite and deprive Russian arms manufacturers of critical components and capital. Worse, Russia and China appear to be drawing into an ever-closer strategic partnership.

In short, the Ukraine invasion may have ruined India’s already tricky act of managing close ties with the United States and Russia simultaneously. New Delhi’s only hope is for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that eases sanctions on Moscow. At the moment, that outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely.

Since 2020, China and India have engaged in a series of skirmishes along their disputed land border, and both sides have repositioned military forces and built-up infrastructure in the area as these tensions have persisted. Does China now see India as a strategic competitor or threat in a way it did not previously, and what implications does that have for regional or global security? What explains Chinese border actions, and what are the prospects for de-escalation between the two powers?

Freeman: The border clash between the two countries in 2020 was the bloodiest in decades and manifests a shift in Chinese perceptions of India as a challenge to China’s strategic interests. Chinese explanations for the violence in 2020 cast its troops as defending against Indian aggression amid stepped-up Indian incursions into disputed territory. Beijing now sees New Delhi as aligning strategically with Washington through the Quad partnership and imbues the outcome of these border disputes with a strategic significance that goes beyond its impact on the two sides’ local positions in the Himalayas. Any gain or loss of ground by New Delhi is now part of a tally in the greater geostrategic game between China and United States. This suggests that China is likely to press forward with moves aimed at both improving its tactical advantage in the border dispute but also using this instability to deflect India from pursuing grander geostrategic ambitions.

Thus, while the China-India bilateral relationship had been becoming increasingly multifaceted, with expanding economic ties and multilateral cooperation, border frictions will play a larger role in circumscribing the parameters of China-India relations going forward. Following China’s circumspect response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, moreover, India will be all the more on edge along its borders. As Dan suggests, the evidence that the partnership between China and Russia is more than an axis of convenience only adds to India’s anxieties.

Singh: Though violent flare-ups may remain the exception rather than the rule, the prospects for meaningful de-escalation between India and China are low. Instead, we should expect to see greater year-round deployments and further infrastructure upgrades on both sides of the Line of Actual Control. In the future, both sides will have a greater ability to escalate more rapidly, putting even more at stake when frontline clashes occur.

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