It’s only February, but it has already been a big year for America’s policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific. No, I’m not talking about Balloongate. In recent weeks, President Joe Biden’s administration has made real progress in two areas: Creating a workable defense strategy in the Western Pacific, and waging the technological cold war with Beijing. In both cases, “competition” is becoming a reality, rather than just a buzzword — and in both cases, serious challenges remain.
US strategy in Asia has long been plagued by a stubborn problem: geography. The Western Pacific is far away, and America has only a few significant air and naval bases there. So if China attacked Taiwan, it would need to cripple just a few bases, especially those on Okinawa and Guam, to knock the US out of the fight.
For years, defense analysts have called for a more dispersed and resilient military posture — Pentagon-speak for more, smaller bases rather than a few bigger ones. After years of inertia, there’s finally some movement.
In January, the US announced that it will create a Marine Littoral Regiment on Okinawa, as Japan enhances its own capabilities in the Ryukyu Islands. In a crisis, elements of that regiment would probably go to smaller islands closer to Taiwan, from which they could use anti-ship missiles to wreak havoc on an invading Chinese fleet. By doing so, the US and Japan would flip the geography of the region against China, using relatively cheap capabilities to make it very hard — and bloody — to project power across the constricted waters of Northeast Asia.
Meanwhile, there is new life in the US-Philippines alliance, which seemed moribund during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s successor, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., has revived implementation of an agreement that gives US forces periodic access to five military facilities in the Philippines. Last week, Manila and Washington enlarged the deal to include four new sites, some of which are likely to be on the northern island of Luzon, located across the Luzon Strait from Taiwan.
Details are sketchy, but the Pentagon is probably seeking access to runways that would help it bring additional airpower to the Western Pacific. It is possible, although more speculative, that missile-bearing US ground forces could also eventually deploy in the Philippines in a crisis. If these plans bear fruit — never a sure thing in the Philippines — then a few years from now, China could be confronted with a US military operating from locations up and down the Western Pacific. Beijing would have to hit more targets, and attack additional sovereign nations, to upend the region by force.
Then there’s the competition in technology. On Oct. 7, the Biden administration fired a major salvo, applying sector-wide sanctions meant to degrade China’s ability to manufacture high-end semiconductors, a critical component of economic and military power in the modern age. After some difficult bargaining, the administration recently persuaded Japan and the Netherlands — two crucial players in the supply chain — to mostly follow suit.
In effect, the US has expanded its semiconductor sanctions, reducing Beijing’s ability to work around them. Biden’s diplomats are now focused on getting South Korea to go along as well.
Slowing Chinese innovation is half the tech battle; the other half is strengthening the ability to innovate in democracies. Here, recent developments in US-India relations are worth watching. Thanks to its enormous population and vibrant tech community, India’s importance in the tech rivalry looms large. And amid deteriorating relations with Beijing, New Delhi is increasingly concerned about the dangers of technological dependence on China.
In May, the US and India launched their Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology; the first meeting was held in Washington last week. The outcomes included agreements to expand cooperation on artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and 5G and 6G telecommunications, as well as on the production of jet engines, howitzers, and other defense gear. The Biden administration hopes these deals will enhance overall strategic cooperation between the US and India, while building a tech partnership that will help the two democracies outpace their shared autocratic rival.
Questions abound. Most of the US-India projects are still more aspirational than operational. Lining up grudging support for US semiconductor sanctions was comparatively easy, given that the supply chain consists of a handful of countries that all depend heavily on Washington. Replicating that approach in other sectors, such as biotechnology or clean energy, will be much harder. And, as shown by recent research on the limitations of the US defense industrial base, all the military access agreements in the world won’t make much difference if the Pentagon runs out of ammunition a few days into a war with China — and can’t quickly reload.
But Washington is at least making strides in key areas of the US-China rivalry. Now more, please, and faster.