The US Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Response: South Asia Caught in Between?

On Feb. 11, 2022, Biden administration officially announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). The United States focused on five key objectives — a free and open Indo-Pacific, building connections within and beyond the region, regional prosperity, bolstering security and, building resilience. To achieve these objectives, the US would rely on empowering its allies, building networks of partnerships, and introducing several security and economic measures in this region. The strategy also addresses China as a threat to the US objectives here. In reply, China immediately identified US policy as a reiteration of the ‘China Threat Theory’ and a ‘Fantasy targeting China’. Chinese experts also identified the US as a ‘spoiler’ and ‘trouble maker’ rather than a ‘builder’ or ‘protector’. The US IPS and China’s response would put South Asian countries in a difficult position as confrontations have taken place officially through this strategy.

The US IPS

Over the past few years, the US has rejuvenated its attention in the Indo-Pacific region to address the growing Chinese influence. The US found its alliance with India, Japan, and Australia to counter China, forming an informal coalition through reviving Quad. Since 2017, a stalemate has been going on between the parties — Quad and China. Apart from Quad, the US also signed the AUKUS pact with the UK and Australia to ensure its security in the Indo-Pacific region. Apart from these efforts, the US and other Quad members also pursued G7 countries to join in countering China through geo-economic initiatives such as Bring Back Better World (B3W). But for the last four years, there was no official strategy for the US. At this time, it used to rely on its regular strategy and diplomacy. The US now has a concrete strategy to follow by announcing this strategy.

US Indo-Pacific Strategy includes ensuring security, prosperity, resilience, bolstering alliance under the US umbrella, and openness in the region. In its action plan, it also incorporates establishing an economic framework for the region — a geo-economic counter to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Other major action plans are: empowering ASEAN and India, strengthening the Quad, Bolstering Japan-Korea cooperation to ensure regional leadership, and supporting good governance and accountability in the region.

The strategy also directly acknowledges that the region faces ‘mounting pressure’ from China. It also identifies China as a rising power that wants to replace US hegemony by using its economic, military, diplomacy, and technological might.

Through executing action plans and building a network of partnerships to fulfill the objective, the US wants to revitalize its hegemony in the region, where China has emerged as a threat.

The Chinese Response

Since the beginning, China has been highly critical of the US interests in the region. China has also labeled Quad as ‘Asian NATO’ previously. It has also warned its development partners, including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not to join Quad. Immediately after the announcement of the US IPS, China responded directly through its diplomatic and scholarly maneuver. Chinese experts identified the strategy as a ‘fantasy targeting China’. Many Chinese officials and scholars also identified the strategy as a continuation of ‘The China Threat Theory. China Threat Theory is a Western prediction that China’s rise won’t be peaceful. For years, Chinese scholars have argued that this theory undermines China and creates an ‘orientalist’ perception of China. Chinese scholars also argued that the US is not the builder or protector in this region; rather, it is the spoiler and destroyer.

While scholars went hard on the policy, China officially rejected the strategy as it directly threatened the One-China principle. Beijing also identified this strategy as an ‘Anti-China’ campaign that will coerce countries to sacrifice their own interests. 

It seems that the announcement of the strategy and China’s opposition have now unveiled a bi-pole in the Indo-Pacific region, which would definitely catch smaller countries in between.

South Asian Politics and the Stalemate

South Asian politics is largely defined by Sino-Indian rivalry. Here, China works as an extra-regional power that provides space for relatively smaller countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Smaller countries use China to balance or hedge with the regional powerhouse, India.

But the growing US stake and direct confrontation between Quad and China make it difficult for these states to maintain their balance or strategic hedging. The US IPS is also distorting the logic of regional politics. The US is planning to empower India to achieve regional leadership. But it would ‘kill’ the regional politics as an ’empowered’ India is a threat to all small countries. Zanel Garcia- A professor of Security Studies based in the USA, recently argued that the US strategy fails to understand the region’s (Indo-Pacific) dynamics and complexity as it is still based on old assumptions. The ‘fallacious’ case of South Asian politics perfectly matches Garcia’s argument.

Again, the unitary idea of Quad doesn’t work in South Asian politics due to the same India factor. So, the US stake will surely increase in the near future, creating a complex balancing scenario for countries. Now, they will have to balance between three superpowers unless they decide to bandwagon with one of them. 

However, there is one positive benefit that this strategy would bring for the countries. And it is the new economic framework. US IPS will introduce a new economic framework that would ensure infrastructural development for the region. Most South Asian states are developing and least developed countries with enormous demand for infrastructural development. Since the ‘globalization’ of Chinese development finance, these countries became the recipient of ‘Chinese Money’ to meet the demand. The new economic framework would break the monopoly of Chinese development projects in this region.

But, complexity and rigidity in regional politics will surely increase at the same time due to direct confrontational stance between superpowers. It will affect the foreign policy autonomy of the small states.

Therefore, it seems the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s responses have unveiled a new bi-polarity in the Indo-Pacific region, which will affect South Asian states in both positive and negative ways. While the new economic framework will provide options for the states, the US objectives, action plan, and China’s ‘reaction’ will distort the regional politics. So, smaller countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Nepal are caught in between in this new cold war.

[Photo by The White House]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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