Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Insitute

Balance in the Indo-Pacific: Defining the US Approach

Senior Fellow
US Navy aircraft rest on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Philippine Sea on May 11, 2023. (David Rowe via DVIDS)

To begin, some statements on what an Indo-Pacific strategy is not.

First, an Indo-Pacific strategy should not be about domestic U.S. strengthening. Yes, the United States should “run faster” technologically in our competition with China. Yes, the American political and economic systems must remain the “shining city on a hill” that calls other countries to our model of governance. But—respectfully—hewing to these positions alone strikes me as a facile dodge that does not provide useful guidance on how we align partners, constrain Chinese coercion, and craft messages for the diverse audiences of the Indo-Pacific region. Good domestic policy—while necessary for an effective foreign policy—is not a sufficient substitute for one.

Second, an Indo-Pacific strategy is not and should not be a China-focused strategy. Put aside the simple fact that the region is much bigger than China alone. There are 1.4 billion people in India and 670 million people across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations, and the region includes four of the top ten economies in the world other than China. The more salient truth is that prioritizing the tenor of U.S. relations with China has hampered the United States in the region for too long. Like a waiter who cannot stop staring at the drinks on his tray and therefore always spills them, a United States that is preoccupied with managing the internal politics, diplomatic entreaties, and—least helpfully—the tantrums and sensitivities of China will be unable to pursue a strategy that accounts for our partners’ interests and structures the region in a manner amenable to our own. Counterintuitively, a focus on China has been an obstacle to U.S. policymakers taking the bold action required to compete with China for regional influence.

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That leads to the basic question: What are U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region? And why the urgent need to focus attention and resources there?

In brief, it is because the Indo-Pacific is the most important region for the prosperity of the American people now and into the foreseeable future, and it is also the region whose potential for conflict poses the greatest risk both to our security and to the stability of world order.

This high-reward/high-risk status arises from the current and peculiar stage of the Indo-Pacific’s development as a coherent region. On one hand, it is the world's largest economic region, one that is thoroughly interconnected and whose geography has allowed it to reap the benefits of maritime trade, the advent of global supply chains, and the innovation that arises from progressively freer-thinking societies. With the ongoing signings of various trade and investment pacts, the region is becoming even more closely integrated economically, fueling its growth. On the other hand, the Indo-Pacific has relatively underdeveloped regional political and security architectures. And the ones that do exist are not yet tuned to managing a China that is increasingly powerful, ambitious, and aggressive.

The lack of mature political and security architectures is a risk factor in the same way that failing to build a beach house up to code is a risk factor. On its own, it will not cause the house to collapse; it is the hurricane that rolls in that will. In the case of the Indo-Pacific, the coming hurricane is China’s strategic ambition.

It is no secret that China’s chief strategic objective is to restore Beijing’s political centrality in the region. In China’s nationalist and mercantilist vision, that means shutting the United States (as well as European partners and India) out of the region—an “Asia for Asians,” as Xi Jinping has taken to say. China aims to compromise the vectors of U.S. influence—military might and access, economic ties, technological reach, and political weight—so as to secure Beijing’s unquestioned dominance of the region. And if China has global ambitions, that larger project will start with and be contingent on Chinese domination of the Indo-Pacific. This region, therefore, constitutes both the opening round of our competition and the most pivotal one.

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If regional dominance is China’s strategic objective, what is ours?  In a simple term, it is “balance.” I emphasize that term because U.S. policymakers are prone to mirror China’s regional objective and fall into a mindset of U.S. dominance, even if they do not use that word explicitly.

We do not need dominance—China does. China’s communist ideology, its increasingly nationalist political culture, its state-directed economic push to advantage Chinese firms, and its military goal of denying U.S. forces access to the region—all of these demand dominance and demand that Indo-Pacific countries actively choose China. (And in some instances, such as with territorial waters, countries are not even choosing. China is simply taking.) While this approach may have the frisson of strength, it is in fact a liability for China’s strategy. Dominance is exceedingly difficult to achieve.

That puts the United States at an advantage. Unlike a push for dominance, our push for balance dovetails with the interests and strategic cultures of the majority of Indo-Pacific countries. Well before the United States was even a country, the geopolitical leitmotif of the Indo-Pacific was its various nations seeking power equilibria with China. That was easier during a century when China was weaker and its external ambitions in remission. That is harder now that China has risen. So there is natural—almost eternal—space here for the United States to anchor itself as a balancer in the individual strategies of each country of the Indo-Pacific. If we achieve enough balance to ensure that partners can make sovereign decisions free from coercion in terms of trade, security, and international politics, we are winning. That balance enables us to collectively constrain China’s more aggressive behaviors and maintain U.S. access to the region.

If balance is the objective, how do we achieve it? This brings us back to the current high-reward/high-risk nature of the region. Balance will arise if the United States becomes indispensable to both reducing risk and enhancing rewards for all involved.

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Let us begin with how to reduce risk. Preventing the use of force and giving our partners the security space to resist Chinese coercion requires U.S. military might. And it requires that more of it be concentrated in the Indo-Pacific. Other presenters at this conference are focusing on defense budgeting and strategy, so I will not offer an extended discussion here. But it suffices to say that U.S. policymakers must seriously look at new investments in strategic nuclear forces, intermediate-range missiles, our naval fleet, and certain capabilities tuned to turning back an invasion of Taiwan. I name these items specifically to balance corresponding investments China is making—investments that are beginning to tip the security equilibrium of the region.

Making these investments would present difficult budgeting questions and weighty tradeoffs in U.S. global military presence. However, current events may offer a path forward. Many in the foreign policy community lament Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an unfortunate diversion of U.S. attention from the Indo-Pacific, even if it is a necessary focus for the United States. There is truth to that, at least in the short term. However, in the medium and long term, the Ukraine war outlines an opportunity to responsibly shift U.S. military resources eastward. 

The reality of Russia’s aggression has—at least upon initial impression—mugged our Western European allies of their illusions on defense spending, particularly in Berlin. At the same time, the reality of the decrepit—and increasingly depleted—state of Russia’s conventional military has revealed itself. These two new realities of increased European defense spending and a diminished Russian conventional threat have opened a path to move a portion of U.S. military might away from Europe and to the Indo-Pacific, and do so without a serious loss of deterrence in the European theater. Now, this type of move will require deft statesmanship and political savvy, foremost to ensure that European allies maintain their newfound mettle on defense spending. But changed circumstances have charted a path that was not there before.

Increased U.S. military presence must be augmented with coherent alliances and security groupings in the Indo-Pacific. As a matter of region-wide security, our priority alliances should be with Japan and, under the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) framework, with Australia and the United Kingdom. These three countries have the most actual and latent military capability combined with the political willingness to cooperate with the United States in a balancing strategy. It is also helpful that each has different but overlapping trust relationships with other partners in the region; trust relationships grounded in shared history and whose depth, in many instances, exceed our own. We should continuously look to expand the aperture of our military alliances with these partners, jointly explore new basing and rotational agreements, and—in the case of AUKUS—look for joint development and training programs that have a shorter timeline to field than the nuclear submarine deal that is currently the headline feature of the grouping.

Whither the Quad? I want to be clear: it is an exceedingly important grouping. But its chief function is not as a security risk reducer—at least not yet. The reason for that is India. India’s non-aligned strategic culture, its current military capability, and its policymaking bandwidth would act as a drag on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in terms of security provision. The Quad’s near-term value is therefore as a messaging and coordinating vehicle for non-security goods such as development assistance, economic standard setting, infrastructure investment, and humanitarian relief (echoing the Quad’s origins in the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami). Even in the long term, I see the Quad’s function being less as a security mechanism than as a vehicle to speed India on its current strategic trajectory toward being a full-spectrum balancer in the region, whether within the Quad framework or not.

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How do we enhance mutual rewards in the region among our partners and the United States? 

On this topic, policymakers have to deal squarely with the issue of forging new trade and investment agreements. As a free society with a market economy, the main thrust of our economic power lies not in the limited tools of state-directed assistance and financing programs but in the weight and productive power of our private industry and capital. Channeling that weight effectively through trade and investment agreements is the only meaningful way to create the mutual and broad-based rewards that will sustain our regional influence.

Unfortunately, the conversation in the trade policy community on how to do that seems to automatically turn to whether the United States should (or even can at this point) join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This conversation misses the point. It too often focuses exclusively on the strategic benefits the United States would reap from joining the CPTPP. At a conceptual level, I do not think anyone questions the strategic value of grounding the United States in a regional trade agreement. But you cannot put the strategic “cart” before the economic “horse.”  The raison d’etre of trade agreements is to yield economic benefits for the American people, and broad and durable ones at that. Without meeting that threshold requirement, a trade agreement’s political dynamics will work to fray strategic relationships with partner nations over time—not strengthen them.

At the same time, that high threshold requirement cannot be used as an excuse to cease any U.S. trade negotiation effort. Our trade negotiators should be constantly and vigorously engaged in trade and investment talks. We should begin them with allies and close partners, like the Philippines and Taiwan. We should begin them with economies at similar stages of the value chain. We should begin talks on a sectoral basis in energy or in strategic industries, like semiconductors, key minerals, or pharmaceuticals, where there are mutual needs to diversify supply chains away from China. These talks will take years and may, in the end, fail. But the current sensitive political nature of trade agreements does not divest policymakers of the duty to seek out new agreements that serve our interests.

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Rewards are not only economic in nature. They also come in the deeper and more meaningful form of expanding liberty and human rights across the region. In the work of winning agreement and forming coalitions, policymakers and diplomats face the temptation to put American ideals off to the side for short-term wins. We should resist that temptation.

Yes, we should go at different speeds with different partners—they each, after all, have differing histories and domestic political dynamics. But muting American principles would undermine our long-term advantage vis-à-vis China. 

Support for liberty and human rights is the key differentiator between Washington and Beijing. Chinese Communist ideology does not hold broad appeal for the diverse peoples of the Indo-Pacific. And, at an even more instrumental level, countries that are more pluralistic, with governments responsive to their people, and that protect certain core liberties are more likely to work with the United States and our allies on a common strategy and a common vision. They are much less likely to be captured by the corrupting power of China’s influence operations.

For a strategy to be sustainable through multiple administrations and multiple decades, it has to strike the American people as true and faithful to our ideals. We are, at heart, a moral nation. A strategy that departs from our ideals or pays them only lip service will ultimately stumble on political resistance at home. In our long competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, we cannot afford to stumble.

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