The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) is regarded as one of the foundational documents to set an administration’s security priorities and determine the ways of achieving those priorities. Released in October 2022, the NSS, followed by the National Defense Strategy, sets forth the Biden administration’s action plan to navigate through the uncertainties of a transformative world and keep its position as global leader.
Targeted toward both the domestic and international audiences, this comprehensive document covers a wide array of issues that the United States considers important in this decisive decade. Surprising for some, the Indo-Pacific region receives the topmost attention in the strategy, even before Europe. This reflects a continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy released in the beginning of the year.
As a country in the Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh has important stakes in the U.S. policies adopted for the region and thus it is worthwhile to reflect on the document and what it means for Dhaka.
Over the past few years, concepts like the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and rules-based order have become trending topics in academic and diplomatic discourse of Bangladesh. However, the terms often lacked a concrete definition and were open to multiple interpretations. The 2022 NSS attempts to provide some conceptual clarity and defines what the current administration sees as a free, open, prosperous and secure international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is explained through individual, state, and regional levels. In a nutshell, it means to live in a society that is free and open and a region that is open, accessible, and free from coercion. This additional clarity will help the general public get a picture of the United States’ vision for the region and is also likely to help policymakers make more informed decisions.
Identifying the key threats and challenges is a major purpose of the NSS. As a continuation of the previous administration, China and Russia are identified as the major competitors. However, the Biden administration ranks the China threat above Russia, denoting China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” It is also seen as the only competitor with the intent and power to reshape the international order. Much part of the document is focused on adopting ways to outmaneuver and outcompete China.
As part of the process, the strategy emphasizes integrated deterrence. Deterrence has been the cornerstone of U.S. defense policy for decades, but the 2022 NSS calls out China directly. The document states: “Our defense strategy must sustain and strengthen deterrence, with the PRC as our pacing challenge.” It chalks out five components of integrated deterrence to ensure seamless combination of capabilities across the different domains. While this appears to be a need of the time, one component of the strategy suggests the integration with allies and partners through investments in interoperability and joint capability development, cooperative posture planning, and coordinated diplomatic and economic approaches.
This is likely to raise some concerns, particularly from partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States and its partners are engaged in different types of defense, economic, and diplomatic cooperation; however, U.S. attempts to use these arrangements as integrated deterrence against China will draw skepticism from different stakeholders. Not all partner countries are likely to be comfortable with this approach. It is important to observe how this aspect of the strategy develops in the coming days.
In addition to integrated deterrence, the document also calls for forming coalitions with U.S. allies and partners to advance and defend Washington’s vision of a rules-based order and compete against those who threaten it. While U.S.-led coalitions are not new, the idea of forming a coalition on this particular issue is a relatively recent phenomenon. The word was only used a few times in the Trump administration’s NSS but in the Biden-Harris strategy, it is used 21 times. This signifies the immense importance of coalitions to this administration.
The emphasis on coalitions raises further questions about the ultimate intention and nature of such a coalition and the obligations of the participating states. The revitalization of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) in 2017 was seen as the formation of a quasi-alliance and drew suspicion and skepticism from other regional countries. The U.S. vision to form a stronger and broader coalition is also likely to be interpreted along the same lines. Bangladesh needs to critically assess such formations to determine its approach if such an invitation is made to the country.
The role of the allies and partners are more specified for the Indo-Pacific region. The United States sees its allies and partners of the region as strategic assets in its endeavors. It calls for deepening relations with its five regional treaty allies – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand – and also strengthening relations with its closest partner countries. It mentions working with South Asian partners in addressing “the PRC’s coercive behavior.” This can be quite concerning for South Asian countries.
The document appears to have inadequate understanding of the realities of South Asia. The United States identifies India as a Major Defense Partner and the two share a similar Indo-Pacific vision a members of the Quad. The growing tensions between India and China in the past few years have converged New Delhi’s and Washington’s views regarding China. Thus, the United States’ reliance on India is understandable. However, South Asia is much more than just one country. Not all countries share the same threat perception regarding China– for example, Bangladesh has cordial relations with Beijing. However, as the strategy calls for involving “South Asian regional partners,” Bangladesh is likely to be considered a part of this arrangement.
The United States regards Bangladesh as an important regional partner on economic, climate, humanitarian, and security priorities. Over the last decade, this partnership has expanded. Bangladesh has vital strategic significance, so it is practical for the United States to expect Bangladesh’s cooperation in achieving its Indo-Pacific vision. But as the NSS is directly targeted against China, it is going to put Bangladesh is an uncomfortable position. As part of its “Friendship to all and malice towards none” dictum, Bangladesh endorses cooperation with all countries and restrains from taking actions targeted against any particular country. Getting involved in such actions would also receive strong objection from the people. Hence it is important for the Biden administration to take the sensitivity and diversity of South Asia into consideration.
While the 2022 NSS stirred a few concerns, it also has positive aspects that Bangladesh can benefit from. First, the document prioritizes a long list of non-traditional security issues, including climate and energy security, global pandemics, food insecurity, and terrorism. It identifies climate change as the greatest and a potentially existential threat for all nations. Bangladesh is already one of the worst victims of the impacts of climate change, and it is also experiencing the other security challenges listed in the document. Experts fear that these security challenges are likely to intensify in the future. Thus, the emphasis on these shared challenges in the NSS should be welcomed by Bangladesh. This would lead to increased international effort that Bangladesh can benefit from.
Second, the NSS recognizes the needs of developing countries and thus it offers to support them through different economic arrangements. It promotes the idea of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Bangladesh was not part of the launching group of this framework but has the potential to participate in the future if IPEF aligns with its national interest and development oriented foreign policy. The NSS also suggests additional initiatives to meet the enormous infrastructure need in low-and middle-income countries. Bangladesh can study the prospects to see if it can use this to support its growing need for infrastructural development.
Overall, the NSS offers both hope and concerns. In the coming months, Bangladesh will need to carefully tailor its foreign policy to work with the United States on areas of shared interests and at the same time communicate its concerns regarding the areas where it is not comfortable participating. Through enhanced diplomatic engagements, Dhaka should clarify its position and explain why it is important to abide by the foreign policy principles it has proudly upheld for so long.
One assuring aspect of the NSS is that it acknowledges that the United States’ competition with other countries is putting some parts of the world in an uneasy position. This gives countries like Bangladesh room to communicate more openly regarding the constraints Dhaka faces in an increasingly polarized world. Bangladesh should use this wisely. As the United States takes pride in preserving autonomy and supporting every country’s freedom to make choices, one can be hopeful that Bangladesh’s decisions to participate – and not participate – in selected arrangements would be appreciated considering its national interests.