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Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy at odds with German, French visions

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — The cover art of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” — a report released by the Biden administration on Feb. 11 — shows a vast Pacific Ocean, with the U.S. West Coast anchoring one end of the region.

 

This contrasts with the cover of the French Indo-Pacific strategy document, which centers around the Indian Ocean and is bookended on one side by East Africa, where France has a foothold. The opposite end is not the U.S. West Coast but French Polynesia in the South Pacific.

 

Germany’s “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific” shows neither Africa nor the U.S. Instead, it zooms in on Southeast Asia, which Berlin sees as the symbol of a multipolar future.

 

All three countries have identified the Indo-Pacific as the center of gravity in tomorrow’s world. Yet the three maps highlight just how different each country’s priorities are in the region. They could portend major rifts down the road.

 

Germany’s cover zooms in on Southeast Asia. 
 

The biggest difference boils down to how to deal with China. The U.S. strategy is built around the goal of preventing China from dominating the region. President Joe Biden’s administration envisions a united front with its closest allies and partners to build a “balance of influence” that ultimately would outweigh China and prevent Beijing from shaping the region in its vision.

 

“Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world,” the American strategy says, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

 

While Washington seems comfortable with a bipolar framework, Berlin’s strategy rejects such an “us against them” thinking. This is reflected in the document’s subtitle: “Germany — Europe — Asia: Shaping the 21st century together.”

 

“The prosperity of our society depends on open shipping routes, physical and digital connectivity and participation in functioning growth markets,” the German strategy says. “A new bipolarity with fresh dividing lines across the Indo-Pacific would undermine these interests.”

 

China serves as the largest single market for German companies such as Volkswagen and BMW, and accounts for nearly 50% of the country’s foreign trade in the Indo-Pacific region. A decoupled world, such as the one Washington envisions, would hurt German businesses.

 

The German strategy, compiled by the previous government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, does not cast China in an wholly negative light. In contrast, the U.S. document says China’s “coercion and aggression” are most acute in the Indo-Pacific — as shown by the economic coercion of Australia, the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India, the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas.

 

The leaders of the Quad nations pose after a summit in September. From left, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Photo courtesy of the White House)
 

Notably, Berlin’s strategy also seems uncomfortable with a U.S.-led unipolar region. No country should be forced to choose between two sides “or fall into a state of unilateral dependency,” it says.

 

Instead, it calls for a multipolar world, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the torchbearer. The strategy says Berlin should help strengthen ASEAN, and that Germany will seek observer status at the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.

 

The American strategy makes no mention of Africa. The German approach touches on Africa in one instance, in the context of ivory and rhino horn trafficking.

 

The French strategy, in contrast, mentions Africa 11 times. On Reunion, for instance, a French island in the western Indian Ocean, Paris says the “exceptional geography” and large maritime port as well as incoming and outgoing maritime links should allow the “blue economy” to become one of the island’s growth drivers.

 

Being the only European Union country with territories in the Indo-Pacific, France wants to take advantage of its diplomatic presence. It has 25 embassies, 14 consulates-general and two representative offices — North Korea and Taiwan — as well as high commissions and prefectures to leverage.

 

The core of the French strategy is to call for all players to be respectful of nations’ sovereignty.

 

“We want the Indo-Pacific to remain an open and inclusive area, with each State observing each other’s sovereignty,” it states.

 

A surfer in French Polynesia. As a full-fledged Indo‑Pacific country, France wants to be a stabilizing force, promoting the values of freedom and rule of law, its Indo-Pacific strategy document says.    © Reuters
 

France does strike some stern tones on China, noting that its “power is increasing, and its territorial claims are expressed with greater and greater strength.”

 

The U.K. lacks a strategy focused on the Indo-Pacific, but its “Integrated Review” of security, defense, development and foreign policy published in March 2021 features a “defense tilt to the Indo-Pacific” as one of the main topics.

 

Using the verb “adapt” 34 times, London’s strategy recognizes the need for “a sharper and more dynamic focus” to adapt to a more competitive and fluid international environment.

 

“We will do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes more powerful in the world,” the document says.

 

The Biden administration has called the grouping of the U.S., U.K., Germany and France the “Trans-Atlantic Quad,” a reference to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue framework for the Indo-Pacific consisting of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. The administration also places cooperation with Europe near the top of the list of diplomatic priorities.

 

Yet Washington has not seen eye to eye with a hedging Germany in the Ukrainian crisis. Similar rifts could emerge when the geopolitical focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific.

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