US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a joint press conference with acting Fijian Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum in Nadi, Fiji, on February 12, 2022. Photo: WikiCommons

If there is one thing that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is best known for during his previous stint as a top national security official in the Obama administration is his famous dictum, “superpowers don’t bluff.”

Now America’s chief diplomat, Blinken is scrambling to reassure allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific that America’s expressed commitment to the region is no bluffing matter.

After an impressive start to its Asian diplomacy last year, the Biden administration rekindled simmering fears of American strategic retrenchment after its disastrous exit from Afghanistan.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and the widening shadow of war in Europe, have only reinforced anxieties over America’s wherewithal to compete with an ascendant China in the Indo-Pacific.

In response, Blinken embarked on a high-profile visit to the region even as top US officials, including Biden, have warned that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin “at any time” this week.

During his latest act of shuttle diplomacy, the chief US diplomat met counterparts from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, and visited some South Pacific Islands, the first by any top US cabinet official in almost four decades, in order to counter China’s growing influence in the region. 

Crucially, the Biden administration not only announced new ambassadorial appointments to key Asian capitals, but also released its much-ballyhooed “Indo-Pacific Strategy” paper. This calls on the US and its allies to “build collective capacity within and beyond the region” to ostensibly counter the growing influence of authoritarian superpowers, namely China.”

Blinken’s visits to Australia, Fiji and Hawaii were crucial since, as one US top official put it, “the United States doesn’t have the luxury to only focus on one region or one problem at a time.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Indonesian Foreign Ministry Director-General Retno Marsudi on her arrival in Bali, Indonesia, for the ASEAN and East Asian Summits on November 17, 2011. Photo: WikiCommons

Hilary started the ball rolling

A decade ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effectively announced the US’ pivot to the Indo-Pacific in an oft-cited article, where she emphasized the emergence of the region as a “key driver of global politics.”

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point,” Clinton wrote, laying out the foundations of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia (P2A) policy, which was first announced before the Australian Parliament in 2011. 

“One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region,” she continued. 

Crucially, the former American chief diplomat underscored the need for the US to double down on its leadership role in the region amid tectonic shifts in the regional balance of power, especially with the rise of China.

Nevertheless, Clinton remained confident that “American leadership” will continue “well into this century,” while emphasizing the need for the US to replicate its prior establishment of a “comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships” in the Indo-Pacific.

By and large, however, the US’s pivot to the region has remained an unfinished project. The former Trump administration’s perfunctory nixing of the Transpacific Partnership Agreement has effectively left America with no credible economic alternative to China, which has launched a whole host of international economic initiatives in recent years. 

The 2020 elections, however, saw the en masse return of top Obama administration officials to power, including Biden and Blinken. There is, accordingly, a profound realization that the US is in catch-up mode in the region, thus the Biden administration’s ‘hyper-diplomacy’ in the past year.  

Antony Blinken and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the Quad Foreign Ministers Ministerial Meeting in Melbourne, Australia, on February 10, 2022. Photo: WikiCommons 

The Quad gathers

In Canberra, Blinken met his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan for the fourth Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in just over two years. 

“We are focused on working closely with Indo-Pacific partners to address the region’s most important challenges. Working together as the Quad, we are more effective in delivering practical support to the region,” the four powers said in a joint statement

“Quad partners champion the free, open and inclusive rules-based order, rooted in international law, that protects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of regional countries,” the official statement continued. 

During his stay in Australia, Blinken admitted: “We have a bit of a challenge with Ukraine and Russian aggression. We’re working 24/7 on that.” But he emphasized how “each of you knows this better than anyone else, that so much of this century is going to be shaped by what happens here in the Indo-Pacific region,” he added.

“More than ever before, we need partnerships, we need alliances, we need coalitions of countries willing to put their efforts, their resources, their minds into tackling these problems,” Blinken added. He constantly emphasized the four powers’ “shared vision” for a “free and open society” as a thinly-veiled jab at the Communist regime in Beijing. 

Blinken also became the first US Secretary of State to visit Fiji in 36 years, a new theater of Sino-American competition in recent years. 

“We see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific,” the US’s chief diplomat said, standing next to Fiji’s acting leader, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, amid political turmoil in the Pacific Island nation. “It’s as simple and basic as that.”

During his visit, Blinken announced that the US would soon open a new embassy in the neighboring Solomon Islands, which has been engulfed in widespread violence amid domestic disagreements over the country’s governance and, more broadly, relations with China.

A warm welcome in Fiji

The US diplomat pledged expanded non-traditional security assistance to the region to battle climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic as well as illegal fishing. 

 “America is uniquely positioned to be a direct partner to Fiji for peace and climate security,” the acting Fijian leader said, expressing gratitude for the renewed US focus on the long-neglected region. “We need American might and its mind as well as pioneering solutions and investments,” he added. 

“The fact is, they have not been present in this space for a long time now,” Sayed-Khaiyum told the media.

As Blinken prepared to leave Australia for Fiji, the White House released an 18-page document outlining the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, emphasizing a need to “shape the strategic environment” in which rivals such as China operate, including to “deploy advanced war-fighting capabilities” to key allies and strategic partners across the region. 

The document, the first of its kind by the Biden administration, bluntly mentions “mounting challenges” posed by an resurgent China as the key force behind “intensifying American focus” on the Indo-Pacific. 

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power,” the document states.

“Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether [China] succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefitted the Indo-Pacific and the world,” the strategic paper continues. 

The Biden administration also cites China’s economic coercion of key allies such as Austrsalia amid ongoing diplomatic spats, India’s border disputes in the Himalayas with China and expanding Chinese military activities across adjacent waters, including the Taiwan Strait. 

In the document, the Biden administration stands in solidarity with regional allies, who “bear much of the cost of China’s harmful behavior.”

This fleet of Chinese ships sparked a diplomatic row last year after parking at a reef off the Philippines for weeks. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

The China challenge

In response to the China challenge, the US aims to upgrade its relations with a broad network of allies and strategic partners in the region, including “our five regional treaty alliances – with Australia, Japan, the [Republic of Korea], the Philippines, and Thailand” as well as “strengthening relationships with leading regional partners, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands.” 

Overall, the new Indo-Pacific strategy paper outlines five key areas of focus for the US: 1, advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, 2, building connections within and beyond the region, 3, driving regional prosperity, 4, bolstering Indo-Pacific security and, 5, building regional resilience to transnational threats. 

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has made it clear that itseeks neither conflict nor confrontation, since “our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.”

Projecting a full-spectrum American regional leadership, the document also emphasizes Washington’s commitment to addressing a whole host of non-traditional security threats, including climate change and post-pandemic recovery. 

“We will not have the luxury of choosing between power politics and combatting transnational threats; we will rise to our leadership charge on diplomacy, security, economics, climate, pandemic response and technology,” the document states, emphasizing how the 21st century will “demand more of the United States in the Indo-Pacific than has been asked of us since the Second World War.”