The Indo-Pacific Has Already Chosen Door No. 3

Like Cinderella forced to leave the ball early, U.S. President Joe Biden had to cut short his May trip to the Indo-Pacific region, scrapping a historic visit to Papua New Guinea and a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or, the Quad) in Australia so he could return to Washington for debt-limit talks before the clock ran out on a potential default.

Like Cinderella forced to leave the ball early, U.S. President Joe Biden had to cut short his May trip to the Indo-Pacific region, scrapping a historic visit to Papua New Guinea and a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or, the Quad) in Australia so he could return to Washington for debt-limit talks before the clock ran out on a potential default.

At a time when Washington seeks to persuade so-called “fence-sitters”—countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—to join its coalition to counter China, Biden’s decision to curtail his Indo-Pacific tour resulted in an avalanche of criticism. Biden may say otherwise, but U.S. pressure on countries to “de-risk” their economies, from imposing export controls on semiconductors and banning Huawei from their 5G networks to avoiding Chinese infrastructure investment, paints a picture of a region divided into two camps: those supporting the United States and those leaning toward China. In this view, countries currently hedging are merely deferring an inevitable alignment decision, in part because they fear the United States might not be a reliable partner. With more attention, visits, and money, the logic goes, Washington can tip the scales in its favor and win these countries’ exclusive allegiance.

But few Indo-Pacific countries assess the choice in front of them in dichotomous terms. Biden staying a few extra days in the region was unlikely to change any minds, because countries have already made their decision. Multi-alignment—when states form overlapping relationships with several major powers—is not a back-up option for these states but their first choice.

Many countries in the region express growing concerns about certain Chinese behaviors, particularly Beijing’s aggression and lack of respect for international norms in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, many countries share neither the United States’ perception of the Chinese threat nor the Biden administration’s simplistic vision of the world separated into autocratic and democratic states. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) helped build a regional order based on mutually beneficial cooperation, and its member states, along with the Pacific Island nations, welcome China’s contribution to economic growth and development. They are unlikely to turn away from deepening trade and investment ties with China even if the United States and its democratic allies manage to deliver on their promise of “sustainable development for all”—regardless of how many times, and for how long, Biden visits the region.

Washington’s regional approach misses this point. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that China’s “substantial presence” in the region meant countries “must all learn to live with China” and made the case for working with those “who are not completely like-minded but with whom you have many issues, where your interests do align.” Washington ought to heed Lee’s words, because interests, not values, guide the policy choices of states in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet Washington seems to view the reluctance of states across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Island region to unequivocally align with the United States as a symptom of temporary indecisiveness while states collect more information about the strategic worth of potential partners. In reality, these hedgers have already chosen multi-alignment as the best way to pursue their interests. For example, Biden had planned to celebrate a new defense cooperation agreement in Papua New Guinea, but the deal itself is not a sign the country is choosing Washington over Beijing. Instead, Papua New Guinea, which has extensive security and economic ties with China and Australia, seeks to diversify further. Multi-alignment, like that adopted by Papua New Guinea, is not neutrality but rather an active decision made to build friendly ties with multiple major powers, working most closely with whichever partner best suits the country’s security and economic interests on a given issue.

Although there are differences in how states across the region achieve multi-alignment and the mix of partnerships they pursue, Indo-Pacific countries fiercely guard their multi-aligned positions, fully aware of the benefits as well as the risks and limitations of collaborating with various partners. For example, both Indonesia and Malaysia have worked hard to maintain security and economic relationships with the United States, China, and Australia despite tensions and disagreements with all three. To maintain cooperative relations with China, they have tolerated Chinese incursions into their national airspace, internal waters, and exclusive economic zones; in exchange, they continue to conduct military exercises with China and, in the case of Indonesia, accept Beijing’s assistance in the salvage of a sunken attack submarine.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia have at the same time pursued stronger security partnerships with the United States, centered around training, arms sales, and defense exchanges. This engagement with Washington occurs despite their continued misgivings about U.S. policy, especially Washington’s perceived further militarization of the region with agreements such as AUKUS, the Australia-U.K.-United States trilateral security pact. Similarly, both countries have happily accepted Chinese investment despite the resulting debt burden and other costs, while working with the United States on other issues including COVID-19 vaccines. They have also further expanded their strategic options, building strong economic and security ties to Australia, including via military exercises and access agreements and free-trade regimes. This is despite having very different priorities and views from Australia’s government in Canberra on the nature of the China threat, the benefits of U.S. presence, and the role of ASEAN.

In this geopolitical context, the United States has less leverage than it might think. From treaty allies such as Thailand and South Korea and increasingly close U.S. partners such as India to those more wary of U.S. engagement such as Vietnam, countries in the region are actively choosing a third way. Even Tokyo and Canberra, Washington’s closest allies in the region, are seeking multi-alignment, building partnerships with each other, with Europe, and with India. There is little Washington can do that would convince most countries in the region to give up their diverse partnerships and go all in with the United States. But, fortunately for the Biden administration, it is similarly unlikely that U.S. missteps or inconsistency driven by domestic politics will push multi-aligned countries to drop or distance themselves from the United States. Chinese policy choices, particularly in the South China Sea, are the most likely to cause a change in alignment. Even then, countries may not abandon the approach entirely, but instead opt to change how they work with different partners and seek out additional major-power patrons.

A firmly multi-aligned Indo-Pacific has significant implications for U.S. foreign policy. Above all, it suggests that no matter how hard Washington tries, a policy designed to force states to choose between China and the United States will fail. Countries may welcome the additional attention and opportunity to build closer ties with the United States, but they are unlikely to break away from China as a result. For them, multi-alignment is an economic necessity, given that China is their lead trade partner and investor. But multi-alignment is also their preferred choice in the security domain. The United States may want to be the security partner of choice, but most states in the region don’t want one security partner—they have chosen to have many.

In this way, multi-alignment also increases the value and importance of allies such as Japan and Australia, which have close relationships with key regional partners across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Washington has typically viewed even these strong allies as supporting characters in a U.S.-designed and -led regional strategy, but such a view is dated. Instead, the United States should build its Indo-Pacific strategy around leveraging the historical and cultural connections of its closest regional allies to their neighbors. Allowing U.S. allies to lead the development of regional relationships would help to more deeply integrate countries into an overlapping—but not exclusive—network of partnerships and offer a more enduring strategic payoff than forcing countries to choose a side.

Rather than trying to rewrite the rules to fit its old strategy, or overreacting to minor diplomatic hiccups, the United States will be far more successful if it accepts that the task is to work with, rather than against, a multi-aligned reality.

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