The Biden administration’s foreign policy is centered on reinvigorating confidence in the United States as a guarantor of global peace and security. To achieve this goal in the Asia Pacific, Washington declared an “Indo-Pacific strategy” in 2021 that is closely linked to its competition with China. While US officials have vowed to engage in regional diplomacy and expand US involvement in multilateralism, the complex nature of these policies risks subverting regional integration.
China and the United States compete over a wide range of interests, and their relationship is the defining factor in Asia Pacific affairs. This competition has led to the formation of US-led regional frameworks in the region, such as the Quad and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement, known as AUKUS. These regional multilateral organizations are central to US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, influenced by its long-term strategic goals.
The Asia Pacific region, however, has been home to several regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but the new multilaterals are different from these traditional regional frameworks. These new arrangements — the Quad and AUKUS — could alter the geostrategic and geopolitical landscape of the region because geography is no longer the basis of their formation. Instead, security interests are their core focus. Owing to this, these alliances may impact economic integration and intensify bloc-based divisions in the subregions of Asia Pacific.
Shaping the Asia Pacific Landscape
The most notable anti-China security-related multilaterals in the Asia Pacific are the Quad and AUKUS. The Quad is an informal strategic alliance between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia and was formed in 2007 in response to China’s growing footprints in the Asia Pacific. It primarily focuses on security and strategic issues rather than economic cooperation like traditional regional frameworks. The broader goal of this alliance is to counter China’s rise and its strategic presence in the Asia Pacific region, mainly its economic projects. In the narrow domain, it aims to maintain regional dominance and has the potential of flaming competition in the greater region, such as South Asia, which has witnessed an enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan.
AUKUS, on the other hand, is a new security partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and was announced in September 2021. It focuses on developing and deploying nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy. This security partnership is unique as it involves the sharing of sophisticated nuclear technology, which is a departure from traditional security partnerships.
ASEAN and SCO offer a different approach. ASEAN, consisting of ten Southeast Asian nations, prioritizes regional integration, conflict prevention, and economic cooperation. SCO, with its diverse membership including China, Russia, India, and Central Asian countries, promotes security and political dialogue across a wider Eurasian region. These organizations emphasize dialogue, cooperation, and long-term regional stability, which does occasionally involve security.
While the QUAD and AUKUS prioritize strategic cooperation with a limited set of member nations, they cater to specific security concerns in the Asia Pacific region. Unlike traditional regional frameworks like ASEAN or SCO, they are not focused on economic cooperation, and their approach is not all-inclusive. ASEAN and SCO, on the other hand, serve broader regional and geopolitical goals, encompassing economic, political, and cultural dimensions alongside security.
Countering China in the Asia Pacific
As US-China tensions have intensified, regional states have adapted to the changing environment in the region. The Biden administration’s strategy of competing with China through tactical multilateralism requires an extensive revision. This collaboration with sets of partners to address specific issues and promote initiatives while excluding China carries risks.
By proliferating US-led or US-engaged initiatives, Washington may reduce incentives for regional actors to invest in established regional institutions like ASEAN and the SCO. This is mainly because the Quad and AUKUS prioritize strategic cooperation and may be seen as more effective in addressing regional security challenges. Since established institutions like ASEAN and SCO may be seen as more focused on dialogue and cooperation among its member states, regional states may be more inclined to invest in the Quad and AUKUS to promote their own security-driven interests rather than in established regional institutions. This could ultimately weaken the efficacy of existing regimes, notwithstanding the Biden administration’s rhetorical support for multilateralism in the region.
While China is expanding its influence through economic development, the United States is increasing its militarization. A zero-sum game between the United States and China in Asia will not benefit any party.
The Asia Pacific sub-regions are likely to face spillover effects as well, and South Asia will bear a substantial impact due to the existing tensions among regional rivals. This rivalry can be intensified due to several reasons. First, India is a Quad member and uses it to promote its strategic interests, which involve acquiring more sophisticated weapons. As India’s role in the Quad grows, it may intensify the security dilemma between India and Pakistan as Pakistan tries to maintain parity with India. Second, Pakistan perceives the Quad as a direct threat to its interests, and there is a growing concern that deepening US-India ties within the Quad could lead to an Indo-US nexus that marginalizes Pakistan. After all, the Quad’s narrative is centered around strategic balancing against China in the Indian Ocean Region by checking its allies and increasing its global profile through defense and security cooperation.
AUKUS primarily aims to contain China’s rise in the Asia Pacific region. It is less likely to directly impact South Asia since India is not a member of this alliance. However, India can benefit from this increased focus on China by deepening its defense cooperation with the United States, using balancing against China as a common interest.
These multilateral organizations reflect the shifting power dynamics and alliances between China and the United States, pushing the region toward fragmentation. While Pakistan is committed to not playing out in bloc politics and maintaining cordial relations with all great powers, India, on the other hand, has aligned itself with the emerging blocs despite its policy of non-alignment, which was a source of tensions between the United States and India during the Cold War. However, the dynamics of their relationship have evolved. India’s foreign policy priorities have shifted, and it has moved toward closer cooperation with the United States in various domains, such as defense, trade, etc. The other major reason behind their closer cooperation is their common interests — balancing China’s rising influence in the region.
Nevertheless, striking a balance between the Quad and regional powers such as China appears challenging for other regional countries, potentially giving rise to bloc-based divisions or cautious diplomatic maneuvering that could undermine the broader goal of regional cohesion. Particularly noteworthy is the case of AUKUS, which conspicuously excludes key regional actors such as Japan and South Korea. This exclusionary aspect may be interpreted as the emergence of a security bloc within the region, giving birth to mistrust and, concurrently, diminishing unity within established regional organizations. Further, the procurement of advanced military capabilities by AUKUS members may elicit concerns of an impending arms race within the Asia Pacific. In response, other regional states may feel compelled to fortify their defense capabilities, thus intensifying the security dilemma among rival states.
In sum, these multilaterals could exacerbate existing conflicts and tensions between countries, particularly India and Pakistan, leading further to the region’s destabilization. The increased militarization will lessen and even diminish the chances of peaceful coexistence in the region. The region will get more entrenched in US-led bloc politics. The security of other states in South Asia will also be in jeopardy due to the power imbalance resulting from increased military and economic cooperation between the member states of Quad.
By creating alternatives to more extensive and diverse regional organizations, the Biden administration’s tactics may reduce the region’s capacity for collective action and cooperation, leaving it more vulnerable to exploitation by a regional hegemon. While China is expanding its influence through economic development, the United States is increasing its militarization. A zero-sum game between the United States and China in Asia will not benefit any party. The Biden administration may have to rethink its policies to align with new regional geopolitical shifts.