Alliances, Partnerships, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

As President Biden continues his first visit to Asia as president, it is clear that China is high on the mind of the U.S. foreign policy establishment (PDF). There is a lot of chatter about his recent pledge to defend Taiwan militarily (echoing comments made by George W. Bush in 2001). But let’s step back to think comprehensively about the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

If I were to form a foreign policy designed to contain China’s global ambitions, I would start with strong alliances and durable partnerships based on mutual interest with countries in China’s part of the world. Whereas China long talked of the Belt-and-Road Initiative linking it to the rest of the region, I would string together alliances and partnerships, not unlike a string of pearls, around China’s key frontiers.

With that in mind, take a look at this map:

Those countries colored in blue are U.S. treaty allies. The countries in green (Taiwan, India, and Vietnam) are all “partners,” either through the Quad (India) or clear mutual self-interest (Taiwan and Vietnam).

The countries in yellow are a mix: some non-aligned countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, some with cordial—if dependent—relations with China (Cambodia, Myanmar), and others whose relations with the U.S. are rather strained at the moment (Pakistan, Central Asia’s republics). Few of these countries have actively hostile relations with the U.S. aside from Afghanistan and North Korea.

From a long-term strategic perspective, this is a map that reflects a fairly realist U.S. outlook on how best to manage a rising China. If I were China, I would take note. If I were President Biden, I would make it a diplomatic priority to keep this string of pearls together, and to try to add one or two additional pearls in Central Asia.