East County Gazette

Fancy Footwork: With Two Steps, Biden Approaches Indo-Pacific Allies

The United States of America is still the “indispensable nation” in sustaining a pleasurable balance of power against Russia in Europe and China in Asia. However, the gradual decline in America’s military advantage over these rivals will request restructuring the patterns in which the country meets these challenges particularly if, in the words of U.S. Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, the United States must successfully sustain “deep commitments” in these regions.

Not Mustering will, But Reimagining Ways.

As part of Biden’s foreign policy agenda, he has sought to “reinvigorate and modernize” U.S. alliances and partnerships. The State Department’s Antony Blinken and the Defense Department’s Lloyd Austin called U.S. allies “force multipliers” a year ago. As part of the administration’s integrated deterrence concept, Austin added that the United States must “coordinate better, to strengthen our networks, and to innovate faster” with its allies and partners. As Mira Rapp-Hooper, who authored the Indo-Pacific Strategy for the Biden administration, recently noted, “allies and partners are not a luxury; they are a strategic necessity.”

In spite of challenges in Europe, the Indo-Pacific remains the Biden administration’s top priority for realizing this vision. On this point, Biden deserves credit despite his wider regional strategy criticisms. The United States Studies Centre’s flagship report “State of the United States: Biden’s Agenda in the Balance” argues that Washington’s approach to empowering its partners and allies is changing.

Accorrding to United States Studies Center, Biden’s efforts to repair the damage caused by his predecessor, Donald Trump, during his first year in office went far beyond restoring alliances. According to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration has been working to leverage a network of overlapping collaborative partnerships so that key allies and partners can better meet their own unique security challenges and contribute to collective Indo-Pacific efforts at balancing. This have involved both “stepping in” to pre-existing and new mechanisms designed for empowerment as well as “stepping out” of the way of allied self-strengthening efforts.

Steps toward to Working Together

There is an apparent increasing willingness on the part of the United States to take action to help allies and partners gain access to advanced defense technologies and platforms and to streamline cooperation. As part of this initiative, the AUKUS partnership was announced in September 2021. The news may have dominated headlines regarding Australia’s privileged access to nuclear-propulsion technology from the United States. AUKUS targets expanded trilateral cooperation with the United Kingdom, including projects in defense science and technology, industrial, and capability development. Thus, AUKUS complements the U.S. National Technology and Industrial Base (NTIB), which has historically not delivered on its promise of greater integration and access for top-tier U.S. allies.

As a result of the Biden team’s willingness to cooperate, Japan has benefited as well. Both countries’ defense and foreign ministers announced in January that they will collaborate in defense technology development, initially focusing on capabilities to counter hypersonic attacks.

Steps toward Self-Strengthening

Also, the United States has become more willing to support regional allies and partners in obtaining means of self-defense. It meant removing outdated regulations originally designed to limit junior alliance partners’ choices as well as being more flexible with the choices of emerging partnerships. As an example, Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed in May 2021 to remove all remaining remnants of the 1979 United States-Korea Missile Guidelines. Originally intended to constrain South Korea’s dictatorship, the guidelines have less relevance today given North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. The removal of these restrictions effectively allows Seoul to develop and field more advanced land and maritime strike capabilities, as well as to fulfill its space ambitions. As a result of these advancements, South Korea will be able to meet its own security needs while also becoming a stronger regional partner for the United States and other regional partners.

Aid on Both Sides

Despite good progress, questions remain about how far the United States is willing to go with this emerging empowerment agenda. In the first instance, how far will the United States help? The persistence of domestic political factors and outdated export controls pose obstacles to greater industrial and technological integration with close allies. The Biden administration is not the first to face these obstacles, but its “Buy American” agenda will make lowering them even more difficult politically.

A positive development is that Indo-Pacific allies are coordinating pushback against provisions that would limit allied access to U.S. defense supply chains and pushing for greater participation in mechanisms like the NTIB. The Beltway will almost certainly limit the chances of new alliance initiatives on defense technology without sustained political support for a reform agenda.

Secondly, how far is the United States willing to allow self-strengthening to take root? In terms of facilitating empowerment when Washington’s strategic preferences diverge from those of allies or partners, there are still questions. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India remains under the threat of U.S. sanctions for its 2018 purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Despite the United States’ inability to provide an alternative that adequately, and affordably, meets India’s defense needs, this threat lingers.

The Ukraine conflict only makes matters worse. CAATSA waivers for the S-400 are possible one-times, but congressional support for a blanket waiver is likely to wane if India is unwilling to take a harder line against Russian actions in Europe. What Biden decides will reveal how Washington reconciles its other geostrategic priorities with the empowerment of Indo-Pacific partners. The importance of these efforts cannot be disputed. A new era of collective defense has arrived, and the U.S. and its allies need to play a bigger role if it is to be effective success.

In this regard, Washington needs to make sure its fancy footwork ultimately helps its allies and partners to step up.