The United States began to focus on the Indo-Pacific region at the policy level under President Barack Obama, but it is the Donald Trump administration that has defined a strategy. It’s something new but also an old topic.
So far, the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has gone through three stages:
It was proposed in 2017, elaborated in 2018 and implemented across the board in 2019. The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, published by the Department of Defense in June last year, affirms a U.S. commitment to its goals through preparedness, partnerships and the promotion of a networked region.
The principle of preparedness says that the United States will achieve peace through strength and employ effective deterrence to meet U.S. strategic goals. Partnership means that it will “reinforce its commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while also expanding and deepening relationships with new partners who share our respect for sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.” And under the principle of promoting a networked region, the U.S. will strengthen and evolve its alliances and partnerships into a security architecture that upholds the international rules-based order.
On July 21, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper highlighted these three pillars in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Interestingly, the strategy report was released by the Department of Defense, not the White House, and the cabinet member who unveiled the detailed strategy was the defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, not the secretary of state. All these facts suggest that the strategy has become a military and security priority.
On the surface, the introduction of the Indo-Pacific Strategy seems related to the tendency in the Trump administration to excise anything related to Obama. The active advocacy by Japan and other countries is another factor. But fundamentally, it is a product of the continuous adjustment of U.S. national security strategy. After the Cold War, the goal of the strategy has been to maintain U.S. status as the world’s only superpower and prevent the emergence of countries that may threaten its interests.
That explains why the U.S. expanded its influence in Europe and Asia after the Cold War. In the late 1990s, when NATO established its strategic advantage in Europe through eastward expansion, the United States began to shift some — not all — of its strategic focus to Asia.
In the 21st century, however, this process was put on hold because of the global counterterrorism strategy launched by President George W. Bush. Back then, the United States engaged in two wars from which it could not extricate itself. In particular, its global strategic expansion couldn’t be sustained because of seriously overstretched national power in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
In other words, the United States must adjust its global and regional strategy as a result of a relative decline in national strength. The adjustment is strategic and in some cases can look like a “tactical withdrawal,” as seen in its “leading from behind,” attempts to end the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, its reduction of international interventions and its withdrawal from some international organizations.
But these developments haven’t changed the nature of U.S. strategic expansion. In fact, they reflect a strategic model marked by the notion of “tactical withdrawal and strategic offensive.” On tactical withdrawal, the United States adjusts unnecessary (inconsistent with U.S. overall strategy) or unworthy (costly but not rewarding) international interventions and implemented a limited withdrawal from regions of secondary importance.
Meanwhile, it is increasing its investment in areas or sectors of strategic significance to maintain its strategically aggressive posture, strategic dominance, and strategic competitive edge. Given the easing security situation in Europe and the increased importance of the Asia-Pacific region in terms of geoeconomic development and geopolitical challenges, the Obama administration proposed a strategy to “rebalance” in the Asia-Pacific to speed up the eastward shift of the strategic focus of U.S. diplomacy.
Now, the United States under the Trump administration faces a more complex and more challenging international security environment in which the key variables are the increase in China’s national power and its growing willingness to use that power. For the United States, the focus on strategic competition between powers has returned to international politics: China and Russia are its main rivals, and China has taken the place of Russia as its largest strategic rival. As a result, the world’s strategic center of gravity is shifting more rapidly toward the Indo-Pacific region.
Against this backdrop, the United States must act quickly — hence the Indo-Pacific Strategy. In fact, the strategy is a response to changes in the international distribution of power and in the geopolitical and economic landscape. But this response occurs in the context of the relative decline of U.S. power. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific strategy is both an active and passive response.
As things stand now, the Indo-Pacific Strategy has four characteristic dimensions:
• Military power building and integration;
• Political development of alliances and partnerships;
• Economic renegotiation of trade agreements and expansion of investment and financing cooperation;
• Institutional formation of regional networking structures.
Of these, the military component holds the more significant position. Through demonstrations of power and deterrence comes a sort of strategic assurance that reaffirms commitments to allies and partners. It also includes crisis management, such as the Sino-U.S. military trust mechanisms, as the U.S. attempts to maintain its control, influence and strategic interests in the region and to continue its leadership role in shaping the Indo-Pacific order.
On strategic evolution, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a continuation (perception of regional importance), an adjustment (from multilateral to bilateral) and an intensification (security) of Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. It is also a prominent illustration of the eastward shift of the strategic focus of U.S. diplomacy, and a product of the continuous adjustment of its national security strategy in the context of declining national power. In this sense, U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific and in the Indo-Pacific region has a certain level of consistency and sustainability — a trait that remains intact no matter what name is applied to the strategy.
There is no doubt that the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is clearly targeted at China. In fact, China is its primary focus in terms of security, economy and regional impact. China-U.S. competition has become more pronounced and riskier as a result of the strategy’s implementation. Objectively speaking, it has brought certain pressures and challenges to China, but they are not insurmountable, given the limited strategic resources of the United States, the complexity of the Indo-Pacific region and the adaptability of Chinese diplomacy.
In fact, China takes a dialectical view of itself and the world, believing that in every crisis lies an opportunity and that the solution lies in its ability to respond and transform a crisis into an opportunity.
Therefore, while maintaining its strategic focus and bottom-line thinking, the country is committed to enhancing domestic development by balancing reform, development and stability, and by modernizing its national governance system and capacity for governance.
This is the fundamental path China must walk to achieve national rejuvenation and the solution to the complex and serious challenges it faces.