Today, international relations are undergoing a period of radical change, geopolitical polarization and competition that coincides with the onset of what we can define as the new Great Game. Issues such as geographical definitions, alliances, securitized regions and the future of trade corridors are being questioned and changed more than ever before, and are de facto stucked between hot and cold conflicts. The main reason for this situation is undoubtedly the change in the principles identifying geopolitical competition, but it is also related to which state in the system will write the rules of this new system. In fact, former US President Barack Obama’s statement in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that “If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region” is not only the best explanation of the current power struggle but also one of the fundamental reasons for many wars from the past to the present.
In the current period, global politics are experiencing a fresh clash to revise the rules. The emerging battle for worldwide supremacy, which started in the Indo-Pacific and gradually spread across the world, starting from the countries in the region, is taking place between the US, the main actor of the status quo, and China, which desires to transform the current rules. The new era of competition, triggered by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s coming to power and initiatives that place China more at the forefront by rejecting policies in tune with the West, has now entered a new stage with the USA’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” (FOIP).
The process, initiated by Obama’s plan to enhance the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region and focus its resources on the area in his “New Global Military Strategy” speech on 5 January 2012 as part of the Asia rebalancing strategy, has continued under Donald Trump and evolved into a different dimension. Trump’s narrative on the “China threat,” “America First” policy, and securitizing outlook have resulted in varying interpretations among different regions.
These views have driven new military deployments, diplomatic relations and economic developments in the Indo-Pacific, drawing global attention to the USA’s geopolitical objectives but creating a split in transatlantic relations. Trump was the first president to publish an official report on Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy during his presidency, institutionalizing the US effort.
Joe Biden, the current President of the United States and successor to Trump, takes a separate approach. Despite political differences with Trump on almost all issues, Biden is equally as active and effective as his predecessor in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, it could be argued that Biden’s approach is more comprehensive and strategic, thanks to combining the economic and diplomatic orientation of the Obama era with Trump’s military and security policies. Biden, who since taking office has been cultivating closer relations with allies in the Indo-Pacific and making more effective use of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), has underlined that he will continue his security policies with the AUKUS initiative and provide new defense capabilities to his regional partners. In 2022, Biden published an official report outlining his strategy. The report, titled “ Indo-Pacific Strategy of The United States”, reaffirmed that the US is a Pacific country and expressed its approach to the region in the following words:
“Under President Biden, the United States is determined to strengthen our longterm position in and commitment to the Indo-Pacific. We will focus on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands.”
As highlighted in the report, the US, which aims to be in every corner of the vast Indo-Pacific geography, has made two concepts the main core of the FOIP strategy, although they do not attract attention in the report in question. While the report’s most critical statement on security is “integrated deterrence”, the discourse of “collective efforts” points to a diplomatic and economic goal. Moreover, the policy of “collective efforts” also means that the US is confirming with its own mouth that there is no longer a world in which it is unipolar.
Through both integrated deterrence and the policy of collective effort, Washington aims to build a robust security architecture by bringing the countries of the region on its side in its strategy of polarization and containment against China. Undoubtedly, the US seeks to achieve defense flexibility and deterrence against the Chinese army in the Indo-Pacific region in direct proportion to its ability to increase coordination among the countries it considers allies and the institutions it participates in. Analyzing the recent steps taken by the US toward this goal, it would not be wrong to say that the strategy of “Integrated Deterrence” and “Collective Effort” has been triumphant. In order to evaluate the gains made by Washington or the anti-Beijing front, it will be useful to look at the recent steps taken.
Perhaps the most significant of the recent actions taken by the US is the developments centered on the Philippines. In 2016, after Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines, the Philippines-US relationship experienced a sharp break. From the moment he took office, Duterte has shifted Manila’s US-centred foreign policy in a China-centred direction. Although Duterte has moved towards a policy of balancing the growing rivalry between China and the US in due course, the reality is that he has sided with Beijing against Washington for the entirety of his term.
The Philippines consists of more than 7,000 islands in the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea and lies at the center of the line between Indonesia, Japan and China. While its proximity to these countries has given it a geographical advantage in economic corridors, its presence in the South China Sea has made it one of the main elements in the rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Not only academics but also American policymakers, stress that such an important geography plays a crucial role in the US FOIP strategy. Indeed, the steps taken by Washington in view of this importance are extremely substantial and have shifted the geopolitical position of the Philippines from China to the US. The rapprochement between the United States and the Philippines, which began with Ferdinand Marcos’s victory in the 2022 elections, resulted in some notable agreements.
The most prominent recent prize for the US is access to 4 new military bases under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed with the Philippines in 2014. Under the agreement, the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Santa Ana, the Melchor Dela Cruz Camp in Isabela, Balabac Island in Palawan and Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan will be accessible to the US Army. The geography of the Pacific Ocean makes the islands and ports of allied countries indispensable for naval forces. In this geography, known as the tyranny of distance, the new access chains acquired by the United States provide essential maneuver and supply chains.
In the meantime, the US also sees the recent tensions between China and the Philippines as an opportunity to issue statements in favour of the Philippines against the maritime territorial disputes between China and the Philippines. These statements have a positive effect on the security and foreign affairs bureaucracy in the Philippines and deepen the China-Philippines crisis. Duterte’s visit to China during Marcos’ recent visit to the US should be seen as a reflection of the new geopolitical dispute. Moreover, Marcos’ statement that US access to Philippine military bases was a protective measure that would be “useful” in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan shows the depth of the Sino-Philippine conflict. While the post-Duterte US-Philippines relationship is moving towards a strategic partnership, it is seen that the incipient geopolitics have developed in favour of the US.
Another recent US achievement is military cooperation with Papua New Guinea. As is well known, the official visit by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to eight countries last year, including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, added a new dynamic to the competition over the Pacific and drew attention to the region. Subsequently, countries in the region, particularly the US, have become increasingly focused on small island states. At such a time, the US signing of a military agreement with Papua New Guinea can be seen as a move to limit China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
Although the statement by Lloyd Austin, the first US Defence Secretary to visit Papua New Guinea, that no permanent bases would be sought and that Papua New Guinea would be assisted in developing its military capabilities, modernizing its armed forces and increasing joint operations with the US Army, gives the impression that this is an agreement in Papua New Guinea’s interest, US access to the country’s bases will undoubtedly be a considerable military advantage.
While the US is geopolitically strengthened by its own actions, it also benefits from the initiatives taken by its allies. Unlike China, the US officially recognizes most of the countries in the region as its allies. In this context, the efforts of Japan, a traditional ally of the United States, are noteworthy. The “Crisis Response Force” proposal to establish a joint force between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and American Military Units, along with plans to purchase Tomahawk missiles to enhance its long-range defense capability, are all aimed at deterring China.
At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Defence Ministers from Japan, the Philippines, the United States and Australia agreed to accelerate security cooperation in the South China Sea; Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force held its first military exercise with Solomon Islands; and Japan and South Korea resumed joint defense and security talks after a long break are developments that indirectly benefit the United States. The release of the long waited anticipated Indo-Pacific report by South Korea, as well as the signing of economic and energy agreements between India and Sri Lanka, mark the beginning of a new rapprochement in the Indian Ocean that favours the US.
It is evident that the shift from the “America First” policy to more inclusive strategies such as “Integrated Deterrence” and “Collective Effort”, initiated during the Trump era, has received a considerable response in the region. It could be argued that this transformation, initiated by the US at a time when the unipolar order is slowly declining, is being closely monitored by China and balanced by countermeasures. However, it is debatable how successful and worthwhile the agreements signed by both China and the US, or the military exercises carried out without encountering a real enemy, will be in the smell of gunpowder that will be felt in a possible hot conflict. At this point, it is worth recalling the words of Helmuth von Moltke, former Chief of the General Staff of Germany, who once said “No war plan survives contact with the enemy. War has the ability to produce results on all rules and processes.” This statement will affirm the thesis that the state possessing more flexibility and more backup strategies will hold the advantage.
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