O n January 5, the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump declassified a document that had been produced by the National Security Council in 2018. The document—US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific—is the clearest policy statement by the United States government about its understanding of the alliances forged in Asia and the Pacific (such as the Quad, which includes Australia, India and Japan). The document makes it clear that the point of U.S. policy in the region is not to advance the goals of the United Nations Charter or to promote human rights, but to “maintain U.S. primacy in the region”. There are two points to “U.S. primacy”, one, to “defend the homeland” and two, to ensure that U.S. firms continue to dominate the world economy. The U.S. sees China as the main impediment to the second point, which is why the entire U.S. policy on Asia is focussed on its attempt to weaken China.
The document was released two months before the new President, Joe Biden, hosted a meeting of the Quad heads of government on March 12. At that meeting, none of the heads of government mentioned China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed to the three main themes of the meeting: vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies. It is important to focus on the meaning of each of these points since these areas of mutual interaction shroud the actual impetus of the Quad. The Quad was set up in 2004 and has since had its ups and downs depending on the political orientation of the four governments, with Australia (under Kevin Rudd) and India (under Manmohan Singh) less interested in this pact under more liberal rule. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and Trump’s “trade war against China” revived the Quad as an important instrument of U.S. foreign policy.
The idea that the Quad would provide one billion vaccines for South-East Asia, using funding from Australia, Japan and the U.S. with Indian pharmaceutical production, seems like a philanthropic act. However, the destination for these vaccines is to be South-East Asia, an area where the U.S. wishes to counter Chinese influence. In November last year, 15 countries, most of them from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under the leadership of Vietnam, signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade agreement that includes China but excludes the U.S. Importantly, the agreement drew in both Australia and Japan, which concluded that the economic benefits of integration with China were more important than being outside the RCEP under pressure from the U.S. The plan to send the vaccines to South-East Asia is plainly to undercut China’s “vaccine diplomacy” and China’s economic and political ties with the entire region.
In September 2020, President Xi Jinping said at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly that China pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060. There was a chance, he said, that China would reach carbon neutrality before that date. In order to achieve this, Xi said that the world must “achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era”. While the Trump administration positioned the U.S. in the “climate denial” camp, Xi showed that China could lead the fight against climate change. Biden has said that the U.S. will return to the Paris Climate process, but this is a tepid form of leadership since the U.S. has not shown by its policies that it is willing to help developing countries leapfrog from carbon to green technology. China, on the other hand, is the world’s largest producer of batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines. The Frankfurt School of Finance and Management reported in 2019 that China was the leading investor in clean energy for nine out of 10 years in the previous decade. This investment was largely in the developing world, where China has financed renewable energy projects through the Belt and Road Initiative. The Quad points on climate change have none of the clarity of the Chinese developments. They could have been drafted two decades ago.
Finally, the third point on the agenda was cooperation on emerging technology. Here, too, there is the overhanging threat to U.S. technology firms from Chinese technology firms. It is well recognised that Chinese tech firms—such as Huawei and ZTE—have gone ahead by at least one generation of Western tech firms when it comes to 5G and other such tools. Furthermore, when it comes to robotics and high-speed rail there is little competition for Chinese firms. These advances threaten the business models of Western firms, which have enjoyed near monopoly control of these sectors for the past few decades. The declassified 2018 document puts the motives clearly: the U.S. government’s objective is to “maintain American industry’s innovation edge vis-a-vis China”, which means not only to enhance U.S. industry, but to deny China access to technology and finance.
At such summits there is often no explicit mention of war and military pacts. However, in other fora, there is clarity on these issues. A week before the Quad met, Admiral Philip Davidson went before the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, where he asked for his Indo-Pacific Command to receive $4.68 billion for this year and $27 billion for the next five years. This money, Davidson said, would go towards an upgrade of the U.S. military presence around China. The money was necessary, he said, because the U.S. “absolutely must be prepared to fight and win should competition turn into conflict”. In other words, under the rhetoric of vaccines, climate change and technology, there is war.
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Davidson’s Indo-Pacific Command has expanded its operations, including with enhanced missiles that could launch a nuclear weapon at Beijing with little advance time. These ground-based, long-range weapons will have a range of more than 500 kilometres and develop into “highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the first island chain”. The term “first island chain”, initially used by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1951, refers to a row of islands from Kuril Island (contested by Japan and Russia) to the coastline of Vietnam. Guam, which is a U.S. outpost, will receive an Aegis air defence system, with a radar system in Pulau and an array of space-based radars. This entire panoply of weapons systems is intended to threaten China, and, as Davidson said, to be made ready for a war. Military coordination between countries like India and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command are fairly advanced. The U.S. has been for long urging Japan to violate Article 9 of its 1947 Constitution, which prevents the country from building an offensive military.
India as major defence partner
The most substantial section of the 2018 NSA document on the Indo-Pacific is on India. The objective laid out is to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and major defence partner”, the last a term of art that integrates India to U.S. arms manufacturers and to U.S. war projects. Towards this acceleration, the U.S. pledges to sell India more military hardware and provide intelligence. Most of this has been said at the various U.S.-India military and strategic alignment meetings and in documents.
What stands out in the 2018 text is that the U.S. plans to “encourage India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean Region”. This does not mean that India will become a “leading global power” in its own right but that it will be a useful subordinate ally for the U.S.’ objectives. The point of the integration of the Indian and U.S. military—what is called “interoperatability”—is to align India to U.S. strategic objectives. In the document, the U.S. says that it will “help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China and access to water, including the Brahmaputra and other rivers facing diversion by China”. Whereas India should develop its own understanding of its relationship with China and of how to solve the decades-old disputes over the border and the Brahmaputra, the U.S. merely wishes to egg on the conflict. Terms such as “burden sharing” simply mean that India will have to use its resources to assist the U.S. as it pursues its primacy in the region.
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Biden, like Trump, recklessly pursues conflict with China. This was made clear by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said recently that the U.S. should “engage China from a position of strength”. China, he said, was the only country that could “seriously challenge” the U.S. project. India, which has been positioned as one of the key launch pads for a conflict with China, has not fully articulated its strategic understanding of the Quad or the Indo-Pacific Command.