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How Biden’s ‘Strong Military Presence’ in Indo-Pacific Sets Thucydides Trap for US and China

The US will “maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific,” President Joe Biden emphasised in his 65-minute address to a joint session of Congress on 28 April. The rationale behind this military buildup is “not to start conflict – but to prevent one,” he asserted. How could Washington’s new strategy play out in the region?

Speaking in front of Congress on Wednesday, Joe Biden emphasised the necessity of the military buildup in the Indo-Pacific while outlining the White House’s new China strategy: “In my discussion with President Xi, I told him that we welcome the competition – and that we are not looking for conflict,” he said, pledging to “defend American interests, target China’s “unfair trade practices” and apparent “human rights” violations.

Pentagon’s Strategic Shift

“Biden’s remarks represent a recognition in the US foreign policy establishment that the leading challenge to the United states is the rise of China,” notes John Rennie Short, political analyst and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

Washington’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 2021 is also a recognition that the US needs to fully pivot to Asia, according to the professor: “No more long wars in faraway places with a little strategic advantage.”

Meanwhile, the US Navy’s special operations forces are also switching the focus from counter-terror actions from the Middle East and Central Asia, to “global threats.” Speaking to the Associated Press on Wednesday, top US SEALs commander Rear Adm. H. Wyman Howard III said that the Navy is returning “to sea” as part of the Pentagon’s broader plan to prioritise China and Russia as Washington’s major challenges.

Biden’s strategic shift is the continuation of Barack Obama’s Pivot to Asia, says Jay Batongbacal, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

“The underlying rationale for the original Pivot to Asia (i.e., that it is to become the centre of gravity for the world economy, with its growing producer and consumer markets, better economic growth prospects) holds true despite the passage of time,” he notes. “The expansion of the pivot to the Indo-Pacific rather than only Asia reflects the adjustment and realisation that the area for competition with other major powers like China and Russia is now much wider and broader than the Asian continent.”

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