March 31, 2021

Positive Visions, Powerful Partnerships

The Keys to Competing with China in a Post-Pandemic Indo-Pacific

By Stephen Tankel, Lisa Curtis, Joshua Fitt and ​Coby Goldberg

Executive Summary

The United States was losing ground to China in the Indo-Pacific when the COVID-19 crisis began. China’s growing economic might, military modernization, and aggressive diplomatic efforts were already eroding America’s competitive advantage and shifting the regional balance of power. A year after the virus first spread, it is possible to identify where the pandemic is affecting diplomatic, economic, and defense trends in ways that could accelerate declines for the United States, but also might create opportunities to reverse or mitigate some of them.

Restoring U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific is critical to competing effectively against China, and President Joe Biden has made this a top foreign policy priority. In particular, his administration is making the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a strategic forum commonly known as the Quad, which is comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India—a core component of its approach to the Indo-Pacific. Chinese post-outbreak behavior has driven increased cooperation among these four countries in the diplomatic, economic, and defense domains to address shared challenges from China. Seizing the opportunities this cooperation creates is critical for the United States.

While expanding U.S. cooperation with Quad countries, the United States cannot neglect Southeast Asia, where competition with China for influence is fiercest. Southeast Asia is at the heart of U.S. and Japanese efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, and is a region where Australia has played a traditional leadership role. Competing effectively with China requires offering Southeast Asian countries a positive alternative vision to the one Beijing promotes. Whether the United States and its fellow Quad democracies can help Southeast Asian countries recover from the COVID-19 crisis will be a key litmus test of their ability to deliver on such an agenda.

This report offers recommendations for the United States to take unilaterally and in close cooperation—bilaterally, trilaterally, and through the Quad—with Japan, Australia, and India to address challenges and seize opportunities created by the COVID-19 crisis along three lines of effort: diplomatic, economic, and defense.

Diplomatic Lines of Effort

  • Swiftly follow through with plans to work with Japan and Australia to fund the Indian production of at least one billion vaccine doses and their distribution in the Indo-Pacific. Consider additional vaccine diplomacy options to pursue unilaterally or in concert with the Quad and other countries.
    • Option 1: Lay the groundwork for an eventual smooth transition from distributing vaccines in the United States to distributing them abroad.
    • Option 2: Provide financial support to fund the purchase and distribution of vaccines in the Indo-Pacific, especially among Southeast Asian countries.
    • Option 3: Consider additional steps to boost vaccine production by supporting distributed manufacturing capacity in the Indo-Pacific.
    • Option 4: Create an Indo-Pacific COVID-19 response mechanism that includes Quad and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.
  • Build shared mechanisms for tackling Chinese disinformation about the origins of COVID-19 and the efficacy of Western vaccines.
  • Prioritize public health and emergency preparedness in Quad and ASEAN engagements, and increase public health assistance to Southeast Asian countries.

Economic Lines of Effort

  • Prioritize helping Indo-Pacific countries, especially those in Southeast Asia, deal with debt problems resulting from or exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Accelerate implementation of existing assistance programs for infrastructure and human capital development in the region and enhance coordination with other Quad countries on the delivery of assistance.
  • Pursue small-scale trade initiatives, while simultaneously exploring the costs and benefits of entering the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • Balance reshoring with diversification of supply chains and emphasize efforts to help allies and partners deepen their own supply chains.
  • Expand opportunities for Quad engagement on economic issues in the Indo-Pacific.

Defense Lines of Effort

  • Increase defense integration with Japan and Australia.
  • Adapt exercises to account for potential reductions in presence and possible future disruptions to training cycles.
  • Seize opportunities to expand the U.S.-India defense relationship.
  • Seek opportunities to reinforce and expand defense ties between all four Quad countries

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  • Stephen Tankel

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Stephen Tankel is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is also an Associate Professor at Am...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is a foreign policy and national securit...

  • Joshua Fitt

    Research Associate, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Joshua Fitt is a Research Associate for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He focuses on U.S. East Asian security strategy and...

  • ​Coby Goldberg

    Former Intern, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Coby Goldberg is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)....

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