AUKUS shows the beginnings of the American Indo-Pacific strategy


Susannah Patton is Research Fellow, Ashley Townshend is Director, and Tom Corben is Research Associate, all with the Foreign and Defense Policy Program at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

Prior to the AUKUS announcement, evidence that the Biden administration was prioritizing the Indo-Pacific region was scarce.

Of course, the administration has talked a lot about China, but President Joe Biden has mainly presented this as a long-term global competition for who would win the 21st century, mainly focused on competing political systems and technological governance.

Administration officials have shown little sense of urgency regarding competition in the Indo-Pacific, the region where China has the greatest advantages.

The Pentagon initially sought to dissolve the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a program intended to transfer funds to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command for urgent regional needs, into future-oriented military modernization accounts. It took nearly six months for a ministerial official to travel to Southeast Asia.

The creation of the enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS, involving Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, changes that narrative, with Washington doing something new and unexpected to strengthen a key regional ally.

Not only is the United States committed to sharing nuclear-powered submarine technology, which it has only shared once before, but the way the announcement was made suggests that AUKUS is intended as a strong and immediate signal of deterrence for China.

Indeed, the launch of AKUS was the first time under Biden’s presidency that he was clear about the importance to the United States of the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific.

At last week’s in-person Quad summit, the four leaders also sent a powerful signal about Washington’s ability to bring together a coalition of regional countries committed to balancing China. The Quad’s agenda is diffuse and the coordination of global technology standards and regional infrastructure will take years to affect the regional balance of power.

Joe Biden, second from left, is organizing a Quad Summit at the White House on September 24: a strong signal on Washington’s ability to bring together a coalition of regional countries determined to balance China. © Getty Images

Yet over time, the Quad promises to be an important practical vehicle for US regional strategy. So how much closer is Washington to an Indo-Pacific strategy for success?

Such a strategy must position the United States both to compete for regional influence in peacetime and to deter military threats from China, with Washington now sending a strong signal of its commitment to strengthening regional allies and ensuring a strong forward military presence.

New Australian-U.S. Force posture initiatives will expand U.S. military air, land and sea access to bases and sustainment facilities in Australia, potentially paving the way for improved rotations of submarines, warships and bombers in the area.

Australia’s strategic weight will increase through these two agreements, allowing Canberra to play a more active role in maintaining a favorable regional balance of power.

The United States is also optimistic about consolidating its military presence in the Philippines following the renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement. Senior Pentagon officials have endorsed a strategy to deny China the ability to carry out rapid aggression along the First Island Chain. And Congress is set to add $ 25 billion to the President’s 2022 defense budget, primarily to support short-term military capability.

But it’s too early to tell if this will all happen soon enough. Implementing posture initiatives takes time, and the Pentagon has made little progress in the region for 20 years. Working faster is essential to meet the military challenges that China presents in the 2020s.

U.S. allies will monitor the results of the administration’s review of the administration’s global force posture and the new national defense strategy to see how Washington intends to meet deterrence requirements in the short and long term.

In South East Asia, the administration has continued to do and say the right things following its successful visits to the region. But a bigger problem remains, that some just don’t like what the United States sells.

Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s declarations of concern over the AUKUS deal reflect their concerns over rising regional tensions and instability, which they see as being driven as much by US-China dynamics as they are by Beijing alone.

Quad’s statement reference to the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will do little to offset the impression that Southeast Asian countries are increasingly spectators in the security affairs of the region.

Above all, a missing economic component is expected to remain the weakest element in US strategy for the region. The results of recent US meetings with countries in the region, and the Quad Declaration, do not give any encouragement to those hoping to see a trade-based strategy, or even an increased effort on infrastructure.

China’s candidacy for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), if taken seriously by member countries, could be the best stimulus for renewed American interest.

Finally, a compelling US regional strategy also requires the administration to clearly articulate its theory of victory to manage the US-China relationship.

Biden’s statement to the United Nations last week that “we are not looking for a new cold war” is not enough, especially when the focus on the struggle between democracy and autocracy seems to portend such a conflict. Regional countries want to know how competitive coexistence will remain possible.

Despite these shortcomings, there is a lot to like about Washington’s recent Indo-Pacific movements. With the surprise announcement from AUKUS, Washington posed the question: what else could it do to maintain a favorable balance in the Indo-Pacific?

This is what Washington and its allies hope Beijing demands.

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