In line with the U.S. strategy of checking the rise of a peer competitor and a regional hegemon, the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) identifies China as “the most consequential geopolitical challenge.” It carries forward the main thrust of the Trump administration’s 2017 NSS, albeit in a more structured way with a sharper focus on contemporary and future challenges.
The clearest change is that the usual tone of a unipolar power is missing. The idea of unilateralism has taken a back seat and there is a substantial focus on deepening alliances and strengthening other strategic partnerships. The driver of this change is the need to create a coalition of like-minded countries against an ever-aggressive China. Given the significant shift in the global balance of power, the United States recognizes that balancing China alone will not be an effective strategy.
The NSS also seeks to boost global economic cooperation, supply chain resilience, and cooperation regarding technological innovation. This is notable given that coercive geoeconomics is a part of China’s global strategy. This time, instead of liberal internationalism being an end unto itself, material security is the key driver behind the NSS’s push for new economic frameworks and norms. This was made evident when the United States announced sweeping technological sanctions on China to block its access to advanced semiconductors, something quite contrary to the spirit of liberal internationalism.
For Indo-Pacific partners like India, the NSS’s acknowledgment that they are at the forefront of Chinese coercion comes as a relief. It provides a much-needed reassurance that the Russo-Ukrainian War has not blinded the United States to the systemic-level changes that have taken place.
The NSS prioritizes “maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC [People’s Republic of China] while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.” It declares that while Russia poses an acute threat to European regional security, China is “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
There is also a watering down of the ideological framing of U.S.-China competition. First, instead of marketing it as a competition between democracies and autocracies, the NSS says that the United States will also engage with non-democracies that want to preserve the liberal international order. Second, the NSS does not present great power competition in “us vs. them” terms.
The Biden administration seems to understand the constraints of its regional partners and allows them the freedom to choose the terms of cooperation. When choosing a strategic partner, countries usually prefer the one that offers more space for maneuvering and is ideologically less demanding, understanding the constraints of a sovereign. Accordingly, the NSS says the United States will support their “ability to make sovereign decisions in line with their interests and values, free from external pressure.”
The NSS has important implications for key Indo-Pacific partners such as India. First, there is greater momentum behind various regional security and economic frameworks like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), I2U2 (India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates), AUKUS, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Unlike the unipolar years, there are limits on the United States’ ability to set the global rules of the road. It is likely that there will be new “minilaterals” and other flexible dialogue mechanisms involving regional Indo-Pacific powers.
Second, India wants to portray itself as an alternative manufacturing hub for foreign companies. The NSS’s vision of “invest, build, and modernize” will therefore help India meet its developmental goals. The CHIPS and Science Act will help India see positive trickle-down effects from U.S. industrial policy. India’s closer integration with G-7 members and partners like Israel can boost its indigenous innovative capacities and regional economic infrastructure development.
However, India’s progress on this front will be slow given that it has typically been skeptical of regional institutionalization processes. This is explained partly by its domestic political constraints and the weakness of its agriculture and manufacturing industries. India’s withdrawals from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and trade-related negotiations associated with the IPEF further support this notion.
Third, to boost its own defense capabilities, India will look to further loosen the U.S. arms export control regime. The United States has traditionally been reluctant to transfer critical defense technologies to India which is a key reason why its defense modernization plan hinges on cooperation with Russia. India likely wants greater bilateral support from the United States in developing and producing critical defense technologies, as well as transferring significant capabilities to diversify its arms suppliers.
Since the NSS does not declare the coming decade to be an all-out war between autocracies and democracies, it will be more considerate of difficult choices that regional partners make that run contrary to U.S. interests. For example, given India’s heavy dependence on Russia for defense supplies, New Delhi will not be able to align itself entirely with the United States.
Additionally, “responsible competition” with China will better serve India’s interests rather than a zero-sum security calculus. India shares a long disputed border with China and it would not be able to escape the costs of a great power war in the Indo-Pacific. India wants the lines of communication between the United States and China to remain open so that diplomacy and dialogue can continue.
The United States, China, Russia, Japan, France, and India need a cooperative framework to address challenges related to climate change, public health, food security, nuclear proliferation, and piracy, even if fruitful outcomes look difficult to reach. Hence, the ideological watering down of the NSS means that it will be more accommodating of India’s strategic autonomy and allow New Delhi to avoid U.S. sanctions while dealing with Russia, China, and Iran.
For the United States, if the unipolar era was about engaging with rivals and reigning in partners, this new era will be about competing with the rivals and engaging the partners. However, for U.S. regional partners such as India, this bipolar era will be marked by a paradox. While close cooperation with the West will create new opportunities in the Indo-Pacific, the threats they face will also increase proportionately to the intensity of U.S.-China competition. Navigating through this opportunity-insecurity paradox to pursue national strategic goals and policy objectives will be a test of tact and grit for decision-makers sitting in Indo-Pacific capitals.
Siddhant Bajpai is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research (CSDR), New Delhi (@siddhantIND).