By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this June, the US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan released the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. The subtitle of the report talks about the US goals of “preparedness, partnerships and promoting a networked region,” and the 55-page report appears to be a new and clearer vision of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
A few important points reveal themselves at the first reading. One, the Indo-Pacific strategy appears to have been accorded more priority in US foreign and defence policies, with the report stating that the Indo-Pacific is a “priority theatre” for US interests. In fact, it goes on to say that the “Indo-Pacific is the single most consequential region for America’s future.”
Two, the US strategy is now going to be more overt in contending with China. For example, the report openly alleges that China “seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.” This posture comes in the wake of unending US-China trade disputes, China’s visible move to alter the economic order of the region through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS), and non-cooperation with the US in the denuclearisation of North Korea.
Three, the US Indo-Pacific strategy is aimed at involving more like-minded countries rather than being just a quadrilateral network among the US, Japan, Australia, and India. For example, the strategy envisages a more active role for Southeast Asian countries. This ties back to the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver asking ASEAN countries during his visit to Kuala Lumpur in April 2019 to aim for a code of conduct (CoC) in the SCS that would be “consistent with existing international laws and norms.” The report indicates that the US will reach out to Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam more proactively to convince them to fight for a free and open SCS, as around US$ 5 trillion worth of global trade passes through it. China, in recent years, has built military installations on around seven islands in the SCS. Thus, a horizontal expansion of the Indo-Pacific network is another important motive of the newly released strategy. However, this does not imply that the quadrilateral network would be diluted in the process.
Four, the US Indo-Pacific strategy is going to become more stringent in the implementation of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), and for that the US will provide technical assistance to willing Southeast Asian states. Under its Maritime Security Initiative, the US plans to provide ScanEagle 2 Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) to several countries free of cost, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It is interesting to note that the US is ready to give concessions to these countries despite its Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which restricts arms supply to those countries that do business with Russia in the defence domain.
The US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report is an important US statement on regional politics, and it says in clear terms that this strategy will be more focused, prioritised, horizontally expanded, but non-compromising. It will, in all probability, further intensify US-China contestation for regional influence. However, its efficacy and success are not certain. First, a horizontal expansion of the strategy may lead to a less cohesive approach, and there could be more varied shades of the same strategy pursued by different countries. Second, many of the regional countries are not going to be comfortable with the aggressiveness inherent in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. Third, Southeast Asian countries are more diverse than the report assumes them to be. They are not so likely to be willing members of any overt counterbalancing strategy vis-à-vis China. Several of these countries recently sent their warships to China when on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Navy, Beijing displayed its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
Overall, the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report is significant development on matters that relate to regional security equations, but it is yet unclear as to how it could play out. Through the report, the US has shown its firmness against China’s ‘revisionism’, and China, in return, has also shown a similarly uncompromising stance. It is now time to witness how other countries of the region respond to it, which will play a big role in how the strategy unfolds.
Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies (SIS), JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.