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US Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific: Is President Biden Doing Enough?

by Anirudh Prakash

Image: US and Indonesian troops fist bump during Garuda Shield joint exercises (via Asia Times)

For centuries, the Indo-Pacific considered itself as Asia’s “maritime underbelly.” Today, it has become a theater of intense geopolitical competition between status-quo states and revisionist powers whose ongoing activities present a series of disconcerting security challenges that not only threaten Asia’s inter-stability, but the overall framework of international order. Specifically, China harboring expansionist and revisionist military doctrines leaves the United States enmeshed in a tense period of great-power competition, now at its highest since the Cold War. President Biden’s policies, which consist of advancing integrated deterrence, are making some effort to bolster Indo-Pacific security; however, none are attempting to solve the organizational challenges US combatant commanders face when working with allied forces in the region. The United States should reconsider the effectiveness of its integrated Indo-Pacific deterrence initiative and instead pinpoint the fundamentals that will allow America and its regional allies to gather the unity necessary to degrade the threats of their prime adversaries.

For over several decades, the United States has desired an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Since the end of World War II, the United States maintained a significant military presence in the region to safeguard its national interests as well as reinforce its current deterrence posture set by the Pentagon. As a result, there exists a surge of Army and Marine Corps in Okinawa, South Korea, and Australia. This is because, given the region’s volatile geostrategic environment, the United States believes increased troop presence and enhanced defense capabilities are the panacea towards overcoming the Indo-Pacific’s central challenges.

Under this new effort, the US was able to build an adequate alliance-building strategy that allowed it to enhance cooperation with instrumental coalitions from the theater. Some examples include strengthening cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, deepening collaboration with five regional treaty alliances, implementing a nuclear-sharing program with Australia and the United Kingdom, and facilitating rip-roaring combined exercises like the RIMPAC for sea services and Super Garuda Shield for land services.

Although these policies have achieved successes in alliance building, they are still being held back by issues with interoperability. Sociocultural and linguistic barriers poke holes in direct communications between US and allied militaries. Another concern involves neocolonialism; allied forces have long desired strategic autonomy, and fears of potential Western military encroachment may hinder their ability to conduct combined operations in contested, warfighting environments. Following America’s debacles in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, America’s allies may show skepticism for US military doctrine and its efficacy as an adequate deterrent against their adversaries.

To overcome these barriers, the Biden administration should mend its current interoperability strategy to account for the following instrumental tenets prepared by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: respect, rapport, knowledge of partners, and trust. Respect and rapport encourages US commanders to understand the history and cultures that these militaries originate from and their local customs followed. Allowing allied Indo-Pacific militaries to teach US commanders their traditions gives commanders the advantage of broadening their knowledge on the Indo-Pacific and the type of environment their forces will be operating in. Knowledge of partners and building trust are also critical tenets both parties ought to grasp. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated to US forces post-World War II, “mutual confidence is the one basic thing that would make allied commands work.” Rather than quarreling over doctrines, complete transparency with allied militaries helps alleviate apprehension and bolster the confidence needed for both militaries to focus on more demanding issues. This recommendation is the mainstay that ensures America’s credibility is reinforced to both increase combat readiness of America’s allies as well as bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

The US military can assist allied units in establishing multinational command/training centers, with each upholding the respective tenets. Here, these centers can adopt a rotational lead nation (LN) command structure that allows each allied member to become the LN commander in turn. Similar to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the commanders will consist of officials from various nations, each responsible for synchronizing activities between allied militaries while respecting the aforementioned pillars salient for success. The rotational LN structure safeguards that these tenets are properly executed because allowing this dispersion of authority decreases the likeliness of power corruption and makes sure each country’s voice is heard. With multinational command/training centers, America’s allies will have their work cut out for them, and beyond that, leave Indo-Pacific strategy to thrive in greater degrees of success.

The world has reached an inflection point for geopolitics, and the Indo-Pacific continues to become a more dangerous region in which the United States holds high stake. With tensions rising, not only does it degrade the security of the theater, but US allies are left more vulnerable to these alarming threats. It is time for President Biden, the Pentagon, and the US Indo-Pacific Command to ensure America’s allies have the greatest degree of interoperability to deter aggression from countries such as China and North Korea and guarantee the most peaceful future for all. Although current efforts have strengthened relations with allied countries, a synergy of respect, rapport, knowledge, and trust are essential for America’s force posture doctrine because they embolden unified action that allows allied forces to conduct operations with lessened sociocultural constraints. Without them, not only would the US’ regional security architecture become more vulnerable, but America’s historic Indo-Pacific allies may soon fall prey to the shadows of authoritarianism.

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