While the Ukraine war continues to dominate policymakers’ attention, the Biden administration has engaged in a series of diplomatic initiatives with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific region over the course of the last two months. The message is clear: Washington sees the Indo-Pacific as the world’s principal geostrategic region, with a host of challenges to meet — like competition with China and climate change — and opportunities to seize, particularly related to technology and the economy.

President Biden meets with Prime Minister Kishida of Japan, center; Prime Minister Modi of India, right; and Prime Minister Albanese of Australia, center, during a Quad leaders meeting in Tokyo, May 24, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Biden meets with Prime Minister Kishida of Japan, center; Prime Minister Modi of India, right; and Prime Minister Albanese of Australia, center, during a Quad leaders meeting in Tokyo, May 24, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

USIP’s Mirna Galic, Brian Harding, Tamanna Salikuddin and Vikram Singh analyze Washington’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy, U.S.-India relations amid differences over the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s engagement in the Pacific Islands region and the role of economics in the administration’s regional strategy.

In the last two months alone, the Biden administration has held ministerial talks with India and a summit of ASEAN leaders in Washington, and President Biden went to South Korea and Japan and participated in a summit of "Quad" leaders, among other high-level meetings. What is the administration seeking to accomplish through these talks and meetings, and how is it balancing this focus on Asia with the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe?

Galic: The president’s visit to the region and the recent regional diplomacy both there and in Washington are all in support of the administration’s desire to reorient U.S. foreign policy to the reality that the Indo-Pacific is the emerging center of gravity of the international system. Not only is it home to a great power competitor, China, which the administration sees as the “most serious, long-term” challenger to the international order, but it is also expected to be the driver of global economic and technological growth in the decades to come.

The war in Ukraine has hampered the administration’s desire to focus full throttle on the Indo-Pacific region, but it has also reaffirmed the importance of the region beyond its borders. This was demonstrated not only by Chinese support for Russia, but also by the assistance of regional partners like Australia, Japan and South Korea, among others, in the imposition of punishing sanctions on Russia and the provision of support to Ukraine. It is precisely a focus on these and other partners in the region that forms the core of the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy and its efforts to “more firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Perhaps more remarkably than that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific even with the danger posed by Russia, is that Europe too is not far behind, despite bearing the brunt of the current conflict. Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea have been invited to attend the NATO Summit in Madrid later this month, where the alliance will reveal its new Strategic Concept, which is expected to address China in addition to Russia. 

Have tensions developed in the U.S.-India relationship over Delhi’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war, and how does Delhi's choice to not criticize Vladimir Putin affect U.S. views of India's role in the region or as a partner for competition with China?

Singh: U.S. leaders have been pragmatic about India's refusal to openly criticize Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine. Because the war hurts India — which had to evacuate thousands of citizens, faces food insecurity, and has seen its economic recovery from COVID derailed — U.S. officials hoped New Delhi might push back on Moscow in public as well as in private. Yet most American policymakers expected India to take this nuanced approach given its historic reluctance to openly criticize other countries and its ties to Russia, which it relies on for critical military equipment and agricultural inputs. 

New Delhi hopes that maintaining ties with Moscow may keep some limits on the "no-limits" partnership announced by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping before the invasion. The China-Russia partnership is threatening to India as it manages longstanding tensions with China over disputed territory. But with Russia's global isolation, trying to be a wedge between Moscow and Beijing seems like a bad bet. Russia will need China more than ever both as a market and as a supporter on the global stage. China stands mute about Russia's misdeeds, while India, by its standards, has been critical with regular appeals to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity and by sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. 

American leaders would like, but do not need, India's help to manage the Russia threat. When it comes to China, however, U.S. leaders see India as indispensable. Moscow's transgressions and its growing ties to China could accelerate India's move to a more independent security posture that the United States will find to be a net asset vis-a-vis a rising China. U.S. officials are betting long-term on India as a critical pillar of a free and open Indo-Pacific. To that end, the United States would benefit from helping India figure out how to maintain its massive inventory of Russian military equipment independent of Russian supplies and technical support and produce more materiel domestically, including in partnership with U.S. and allied defense industries.

China has stepped up its own engagement with the region, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of several Pacific Island countries. What has been the reaction of these states to the latest round of Chinese engagement, and how are they positioning themselves between the United States and China?

Harding: Strategic competition in the Pacific Islands region has come into focus in recent months, particularly since a draft of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands leaked in April that may presage a Chinese military presence in the country. China’s ambition for its role in the region was then on full display during Wang’s tour of eight Pacific Islands countries in May and June.

Wang ultimately also ran into the realities of the Pacific, where countries are adept at managing larger powers and where consensus drives regionalism. Wang failed to conclude a sweeping regional security pact hastily proposed by Beijing, but he did conclude numerous bilateral agreements along the way, and signaled that China increasingly sees the region as important to its global interests.

Australia, long the most important outside power in the South Pacific, has also reenergized its engagement with the region. Following Australia’s recent elections, new Foreign Minister Penny Wong traveled to Fiji on her fourth day on the job and followed up with visits to Samoa and Tonga a week later. While the United States and China are typically the principal protagonists in strategic competition around the world, in the Pacific, particularly in Melanesia, Australia’s relationships run far deeper than those of the United States and China and its role is essential. New Zealand, another important partner and regional power has also been alarmed at China’s ambitions in the Pacific, contributing to changing views of China’s global role.

Ultimately, unity among Pacific Islands nations is among the region’s most important strengths. However, divisions within the Pacific Islands Forum between the islands of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia have distracted the region at a critical time when outside powers seem increasingly intent on imposing their will on the region. The region will now turn its attention to preparing for July’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, which will bring together 18 member countries and territories, including New Zealand and Australia, and a raft of dialogue partners, including the United States and China.

President Biden rolled out a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework during his visit to East Asia last month. What is the IPEF and to what degree are economic linkages part of the administration's larger strategy toward the region?

Salikuddin: On May 23, during his visit to Tokyo, President Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a new economic grouping to showcase U.S. economic power and leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Thirteen countries joined initially, including Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Fiji, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. As a group, these countries represent 40 percent of the world’s GDP, and IPEF is open to other countries joining in the future. In a joint statement, all participating countries announced that the purpose of the IPEF is a “commitment to a free, open, fair, inclusive, interconnected, resilient, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region that has the potential to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth.”

Coming five years after the United States withdrew from the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, IPEF is not a multilateral trade agreement but rather an open framework in which nations can choose to join certain pillars and negotiate their level of participation. Not being a trade agreement brings some flexibility to IPEF, including not having to gain congressional approval in the United States but also a lower barrier to entry for the diverse grouping of Indo-Pacific countries. IPEF is organized around four pillars: trade; supply chains; clean energy, decarbonization and infrastructure; and tax policy and anti-corruption.

Negotiations in each of the IPEF pillars are slated to start this summer, and while this announcement was slim on details of implementation, the United States envisions the framework nations to commit to various pillars and agree to joint economic rules for the Indo-Pacific. The nature of this multilateral framework doesn’t offer the reward of market access thus severely limiting incentives and mechanisms for compliance. Aside from India and the United States, all other members of the IPEF are also members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the largest free trade deal in the world that includes China. IPEF serves as the economic component of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, one that seeks to counter China’s immense economic power across the region. The real test of IPEF will be its ability to unite Indo-Pacific countries in dealing with 21st century economic challenges, namely rules for the evolving digital economy, stress on supply chains, fair taxation and clean energy.

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