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The New US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Its Implications for Europe

February 17, 2022
5 min read
Photo credit: Haditha26 / Shutterstock.com

The Biden administration’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, published on February 11, confirms what became evident in its first year—a clear shift of focus to the region and a push to strengthen the collective capacities of US partners and allies there. Coming almost five months after the announcement of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that rattled most European countries, the strategy shows a clear effort to acknowledge the value an “engaged Europe” could bring to the Indo-Pacific.

The document builds on the engagement of previous US administrations with Asia and reflects a broad bipartisan consensus on the importance of the Indo-Pacific as “vital for the security and prosperity” of the United States. The goal is to work toward a free, open, connected, secure, and resilient region by anchoring the United States more firmly in it.

The strategy states clearly that a key driver of US engagement in the Indo-Pacific is China’s behavior. It asserts that the region faces “mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC.” It refers to China’s use of economic, diplomatic, military, and technological instruments as it pursues a “sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific,” often through coercion and aggression. The strategy mentions economic coercion against Australia, the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India, growing pressure on Taiwan, and tensions in the East and South China Seas. Therefore, the US goal in the Indo-Pacific is not just to compete with China, but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates by building a “balance of influence.”  

Network of Partnerships

The Biden administration’s strategy argues that “investing at home” and “aligning approaches with allies and partners” will allow the United States to compete most effectively with China. Given the changing strategic landscape and the scale and scope of the challenges faced by the Indo-Pacific, any US response will need to leverage partnerships in the region. The strategy underlines that this is not just about US-China competition or a unilateral US role in the region. In fact, the United States’ partners and allies “bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior,” and they have stakes and agency in how the region is shaped.

The strategy underlines that this is not just about US-China competition or a unilateral US role in the region.

The strategy therefore details how the US vision aligns with the Indo-Pacific strategies of its most important partners, including Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In a nod to the EU’s recently released Indo-Pacific strategy, the US document also notes that, “like France,” the United States recognizes the “strategic value of an increasing regional role for the European Union.”

The United States will focus on building “collective capacity” to deal with challenges in the region and on fostering interaction among partners, including between Asia and Europe. This would mean strengthening existing alliances, including with the likes Japan and South Korea, investing in regional organizations, and building up the “latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions, including the Quad” of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The utility of coalitions like the Quad, which allow different countries to pool resources in a flexible manner, is central to US strategy in the region, as is investing in the bilateral partnership with “a strong India.”

Bridging the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic

A lot of the points made in the Biden administration’s strategy will not come as a surprise to observers of US policy in the Indo-Pacific. What is new is a clear articulation of how the United States wants to work with partners outside the region, particularly Europe. One of the goals in the strategy is “building bridges between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic.” As the current Russia-Ukraine crisis shows, this will not be an easy task. It has led some to question how the United States’ focus on the Indo-Pacific can be sustained. The crisis has also highlighted the challenge of dealing with an assertive Russia and an assertive China at the same time. At least in the short term, the United States will need to be a reliable partner in Asia and Europe simultaneously, including by finding ways to link its partners there more closely. Japan’s decision to share surplus natural gas with Europe in the wake of the crisis is just one example of how crucial such links are.  

The new US Indo-Pacific strategy contains the beginning of this bridge-building. It not only stresses the importance of European engagement in the region but also encourages more interaction among its Asian and European partners. The good news for Washington is that Europe has already started shifting its regional focus away from China toward partners like ASEAN, India, and Japan. Many in Europe have come to understand the importance of flexible coalitions, which the Biden administration has been emphasizing. Countries like France and Italy have instituted trilateral dialogues with the likes of Australia, India, and Japan. The upcoming Indo-Pacific ministerial forum in Paris will be a major step in sharpening the EU’s strategy in the region and will see the announcement of concrete projects it will undertake there. While the United States was not invited, its most important regional partners and allies will participate. The inclusion of Australia in particular is an important step in healing the rift caused by AUKUS.

The good news for Washington is that Europe has already started shifting its regional focus away from China toward partners like ASEAN, India, and Japan.

The priorities in the US and EU Indo-Pacific strategies also overlap. For example, the United States aims at promoting high-standards infrastructure and regional connectivity, and the EU, with its Global Gateway plan, is an obvious partner with resources and capacities to bring to the region. The EU and the United States also focus on critical and emerging technologies as well as “values-aligned technology standards.” In the security sphere, the US strategy includes civilian security challenges as well as building maritime capacity and domain awareness, which are also the key thrust of most European security engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The new US strategy’s call for “managing competition with China responsibly” while offering a positive vision for the region will also strike a chord in many European countries, which have taken a cautious approach toward China.

The United States and the EU have already instituted an Indo-Pacific dialogue to further explore these convergences. The bigger challenge is to stitch together different conversations currently held in various formats—from the Quad to the EU-US Trade and Technology Council—to drive outcomes, offer public goods and alternatives, and avoid duplicating efforts in the region.