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Indo-Pacific Strategy Heading for Cold War

Sep 16, 2020
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

The Indo-Pacific strategy had been an essential part of America’s whole-government suppression of China since the early days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Over the past three years, the strategy had been aimed across all fields, from security to ideology and economics to diplomacy, with the purpose of improving competitive outcomes with China. But as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, and U.S. China policy shifted from competition to confrontation, the U.S. began to further tap the potential of the Indo-Pacific strategy. It would serve the new purpose of constraining China, even to the point of starting a new cold war.

Diplomatically, the United States has been making an effort to package the pandemic crisis within the larger framework of the its Indo-Pacific agenda. The U.S. State Department has tried its best to elevate strategic partnerships to new heights. More important, the U.S. is working to establish norms in the post-pandemic era to manage how trade is conducted during and after a pandemic, how medical supply chains should be reshaped to safeguard common security and how sovereignty can be protected in the face of regional threats. Its clear intention is to direct the regional narrative in a China-effacing direction.

At the recent ASEAN summit, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy, criticized China as not respecting “fundamental values such as independence, sovereignty and equality” and appealed to ASEAN countries “not to let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people.”    

Another development is a U.S. effort to formalize the “quad system.” Since the U.S., Japan, Australia and India set up this forum, they have begun convening high-level dialogues, including a ministerial-level meeting and several others at the level of senior officials. There have been fiercely negotiated bilateral and trilateral joint statements that reaffirm their commitment to the ongoing quad consultations.

The group has gained greater strategic importance in recent months. India and Australia finalized their mutual logistics support agreement to increase the interoperability of their militaries. India already had a similar arrangement with the United States and is making progress toward signing an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement with Japan.

Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun expressed America’s intention to formalize the quad system during Trump’s second term and gradually develop it into a multilateral structure as strong as NATO. He also implied that India’s recent move to invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises represents a powerful development in this direction. 

In the military sphere, the U.S. Defense Department has always played a proactive role. Under the Indo-Pacific strategy, which was issued last year, the department has intensified its activities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. During his recent visit to the region, Defense Secretary Mark Esper criticized China as a “threat to the region” and said the U.S. has a responsibility to lead and “won't cede an inch” to other countries that think their political system is better. He said he considers the Indo-Pacific region to be the “top theater” of the U.S. military and that the imperative task facing the U.S. military is to “integrate weapons and form fighting capabilities” to counter China.

In April, the U.S. Congress inserted the Pacific Deterrence Initiative into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, with the intent to “focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China.” At the same time, there have been more frequent U.S. military incursions in the South China Sea region and in the Taiwan Strait. Recently the U.S. even sent a U-2 spy plane into a Chinese no-fly zone, trespassing on live-fire exercises being conducted by the People’s Liberation Army. Although at smaller scale this year, the U.S. expects its Rim of the Pacific exercise to show its leadership in the Indo-Pacific.

Further, U.S. manipulation in such hot spots as the South China Sea and Taiwan is at a historic high. Beyond the military provocations, what may even be more dangerous and sensitive is its incremental shift of positions and policies in those areas. Pompeo’s statement in July quoting the Sino-Philippines arbitration case and his declaration that Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are “completely unlawful,” indicate that the U.S. has shifted from a superficial non-interference position on territorial disputes to substantial support for parties opposing China.

For Taiwan, the U.S. has gradually eroded the boundaries of the agreed “one China” policy by allowing more high-ranking officials to visit the island, along with more arms sales and more solid military cooperation. The new posture of the U.S. heralds a possible change from its decades long “strategic ambiguity” on the cross-strait relations, perhaps toward a policy of strategic clarity with regard to its hope for Taiwan independence.

Last but not least, U.S. efforts to promote decoupling with China are a major bullet point on the agenda. This is the last straw for Sino-American relations. If the only glue that has cemented the two powers over the decades dissolves, the bilateral relationship will be doomed to enter a new cold war, from which the whole world stands to suffer. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has added urgency to the U.S. effort to redirect global supply chains away from China and to reconstruct the medical chain toward “safer places.”

That’s only part of it. The U.S. is attempting to take advantage of sentiments of frustration with China in the post-pandemic era to hamper China’s high-tech industry and push back Chinese efforts, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and other items on the regional economic agenda.

At the bottom of all this is a U.S. desire to compete and win the fight for norms and standards governing regional affairs for the 21st century — to China’s disadvantage.  

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