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The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US and Its Influence on Regional Security

Sep 17, 2019
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

In March 2017, Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state in the United States Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, announced that the pivot to Asia was over. In October that year, at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sketched out two pillars for a new Indo-Pacific strategy: one was India, the other was expansion of the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral architecture to include Australia.

That November, during his visits to Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump frequently mentioned that the new administration would advance a free and open Indo-Pacific. In the National Security Strategy released the following month, notably in the section titled “The Strategy in a Regional Context,” the term “Asia-Pacific” was replaced by “Indo-Pacific,” which was said to be the first regional strategy, before other regions such as Europe, the Middle East and Africa. On July 30, 2018, at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put forward America’s Indo-Pacific economic vision. On June 1, this year, the U.S. Department of Defense issued its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, implementing an Indo-Pacific strategy through three “Ps” — preparedness, partnerships and promoting a networked region.

Compared with the strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific strategy has (1) shifted from engaging for purposes of regulation, to disengaging to provide a check and balance on China; (2) tried to rope India in and form a U.S.-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral security dialogue; and (3) worked to build a larger-scale network of allies and partners.

The inheritance and further development from the pivot strategy includes the following three aspects:

First, the Indo-Pacific strategy continues to advance the “3-60 percent” deployment of military forces under which 60 percent of all U.S. Navy ships, two-thirds of fleet Marine forces, and 60 percent of overseas tactical-aviation assets are assigned to the theater.

Second, a distributed and networked military posture is taking shape. The U.S. is seeking more international agreements to get access to more bases, infrastructure and installations that can provide interconnected support. Capabilities on the first island chain are relatively reduced, while expeditionary forces, dynamic basing and special operations forces along the second island chain are reinforced.

Third, on the basis of the AirSea Battle concept, the U.S. Defense Department is developing new operational concepts such as multi-domain operations, distributed lethality, expeditionary advanced base operations and rapid raptor. It started testing them through the Indo-Pacific Command.

The previous regional strategy of the U.S. is “The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region,” which was released in 1998. This East Asian strategy report defined China as an uncertain factor, with challenges, opportunities and limited threats. The theme of China-U.S. relations was comprehensive engagement, and the U.S. side held the initiative. Twenty years later, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy defines China as a revisionist power that challenges and undermines the international system. China ranks as the biggest long-term threat to the U.S. The theme of the Indo-Pacific strategy is great-power competition, and its tone is to counterbalance China’s rise in all respects and in multiple domains. It will have three negative effects as follows:

First, taking China as a strategic rival, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will lead to an Asian version of NATO. The Trump administration is working to construct a four-layer network of allies and partners to encircle China. The first layer is composed of five treaty allies — Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. The second layer includes Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Mongolia. It is somewhat unusual to highlight the position of Mongolia in the regional strategy, indicating an American intention to further incorporate Northeast Asia into the overall architecture of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands constitute the third layer, covering India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and the Compacts of Free Association countries. The fourth layer includes the United Kingdom, France and Canada. The U.S. thinks these Western allies identify themselves as “Pacific countries” that play a critical role in Indo-Pacific security affairs. The essence of “promoting a networked region” is to strengthen the interconnectivity between the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia quad with Indo-Pacific countries and organizations. It can be expected that China’s pursuit of partnerships rather than alliances, promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative and implementation of its going-out strategy will collide with the U.S. move to strengthen alliances and its maintenance of military hegemony. The structural contradictions will become more prominent.

Second, taking China as a strategic competitor, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will lead to a regional arms race. The United States maintains high vigilance about any challenge to its military superiority, continues to intensify the “third offset strategy” to maintain its technological advantages and announced its intent to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to widen the capability gap. In particular, the U.S. wants to seize the opportunity to increase arms sales to allies and partners. For example, it is encouraging Japan to procure the F-35A, E-2D Hawkeye, Global Hawk UAS, MV-22 and Advanced Electronic Guides Interceptor System (AEGIS) Ashore, and to help advance Japan’s space, cyberspace and electromagnetic capabilities. It is urging South Korea to procure P-8 and advanced munitions, and to upgrade to PAC-3 missiles and F-16 fighters to increase interoperability with the U.S. military. It supports defense sales to India, involving P-8s, C-130Js, C-17s, AH-64s, CH-47s and M777 howitzers. India has agreed to a $2.1 billion purchase of MH-60R multirole sea-based helicopters and is considering purchasing F-16s, F/A-18Es, more P-8Is and Sea Guardian unmanned aircraft.

Third, taking China as a battlefield opponent, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will lead to potential military frictions and confrontations. At present there are two risks: (1) The U.S. military’s close-in sea and air reconnaissance activities. The nature of these activities is battlefield preparation. As they are becoming more frequent, they might induce accidental clashes of aircraft and ships; (2) Third-party factors. The Taiwan issue, maritime disputes and the Korean Peninsula issue might trigger serious crises and military confrontations between China and the U.S. Take the Taiwan issue, for example. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 suggested an elevation of U.S.-Taiwan exchanges; the FY2018 NDAA required normalizing the transfer of defense items and services to Taiwan; and the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 proclaims that Taiwan is a vital part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and suggests conducting regular sales and transfers of defense items to Taiwan. Recently, the Trump administration announced an $8 billion arms package for Taiwan featuring 66 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets and 75 General Electric engines and other support systems. The deal will be one of the largest of its kind in recent decades and the first time since 1992 that the U.S. has sold F-16Vs to Taiwan. All of these are dangerous moves that seriously damage the peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits region.

China is concerned about the exclusive and confrontational military alliance, a regional arms race and potential military friction. Intensifying a military presence and playing up military confrontations are not conducive to regional peace and stability. We hope the U.S. strategy will be a big circle of peace, cooperation and equality among countries in the region, rather than a small circle of cliques highlighting military confrontation.

Any international cooperation initiative should be conducive to tackling the deficits of governance, trust, peace and development, and should accommodate the common aspirations of the countries and peoples in the region. It should be open and inclusive, with the aim of promoting unity, cooperation and prosperity, rather than deliberately creating division and chaos. It should follow the trend of the times, which is peace and development, and give full consideration to the common security and common interests of countries in the region, rather than putting the interests of a few above those of the majority. It should uphold equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation, rather than seeking absolute unilateral security by playing a zero-sum game, let alone letting one’s own security be based on the insecurity of other countries.

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