Can it counter China?
On 29th May, the United States military renamed its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command. Although the plan was already disclosed, the announcement garnered worldwide attention for Washington’s Asia strategy. Analysis focused on the symbolic and real significance of the name change and many media outlets viewed the decision as Washington roping in India to exert more pressure on China. That is one important strategic consideration for the US. But, China feels that Washington eyes long-term goals for its Indo-Pacific strategy: first, to instigate China and India into long-term infighting; second, to cope with the inevitable rise of India and strengthen Washington’s control over the Indian Ocean.
The Trump administration in the United States has opted for the term Indo-Pacific to describe its larger strategic area of interest across the pan-Asian region. Fully realizing the potential of this strategy will require reconciling differences over the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific and what can and should be done across this enormous geography.
The term’s descriptive value matters strategically. As Australian national security strategist Rory Medcalf wrote in 2013, the term Indo-Pacific recognizes deepened connections between the Indian Ocean region and the Western Pacific. China’s increasingly active presence in the Indian Ocean (e.g., a military base in Djibouti and intensified ties with countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives) illustrates a new reality in this maritime space.
As important, the Indo-Pacific framework inherently places India at the heart, rather than as an appendage to a concept of Asia focused on East Asia. Indeed, as C. Raja Mohan has written, the concept of Indian centrality revives a colonial-era framework that situated India in the middle of a larger maritime strategic space. This larger maritime area, described as the “confluence of the two seas” by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a 2007 speech to the Indian parliament, has important implications.
It’s hard not to see India’s inherent relevance in this broader region – a country on the brink of becoming the world’s most populous; a stable democracy with the world’s sixth-largest economy, third-largest military by personnel strength, and fifth-largest defence budget; and a commitment to rule of law and the liberal international order.
The Trump administration has elevated the Indo-Pacific to a top-level regional priority, as suggested by its placement in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). The strategy describes the Indo-Pacific as a region in which “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place” and where “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” The NSS further goes on to assert that “China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit US access to the region and provide China a freer hand there … States throughout the region are calling for sustained US leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.”
While the NSS calls for working in concert with US allies and partners, including boosting “quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India,” otherwise known as the Quad, the newly formulated strategy also welcomes India’s rise as a “leading global power” and emphasizes expanded defence ties with New Delhi. Notably, the framework appears focused on pulling India more intensively into regional activities to its east but does not necessarily take into account India’s own interests in the Indian Ocean.
The NSS defines the Indo-Pacific region as stretching from “the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” This section has no reference to Indian Ocean maritime space, including the area off the east coast of Africa, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. In this light, the Indo-Pacific, as described by the Trump administration, has a lot more Pacific than it does Indo. Meanwhile, India’s sense of the region includes the larger maritime space to its west. The members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), an organization India co-created with South Africa to better institutionalize consultation across this poorly linked area, includes countries spanning this geography.
In Search of an Agenda
If the NSS hinted at the challenges across this amorphous region, the Trump administration’s statements to date have not clarified its plan. Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy speech, delivered during his November 2017 visit to Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum’s CEO summit, provided the highest-level vision of what the strategy intends to cover. He called for fair and reciprocal trade and infrastructure investment from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and he affirmed the importance of rule of law, individual rights and freedom of navigation. Still, the speech relayed no specific indication of how the administration would support these priorities in any manner that differs from the past, and it did not specify a US approach to a more comprehensive Indo-Pacific geography.
Last October’s foreign policy speech delivered by then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of a visit to India – one of the few policy speeches during his brief tenure – placed heavy emphasis on working closely with India on defence and security across the Indo-Pacific, as well as providing alternatives to the “predatory economics” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, no specific initiatives have since emerged.
This issue of “seams,” or arbitrary bureaucratic separations, bedevils Washington’s ability to cover the Indo-Pacific adequately. This is certainly true within the State Department, where the bureaus of East Asia and the Pacific, South and Central Asia, Near Eastern Affairs, and African Affairs would all be required to cover countries in the larger region. Or take the divisions within the Defense Department’s combatant commands. US Pacific Command covers the Asia Pacific, Southeast Asia, and the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. But. it does not cover Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are part of US Central Command, nor does it encompass the islands in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, which are contained within the US Africa Command area of responsibility.
For its part, India seeks further coordination with the United States not only on the eastern portion of the region – Southeast and Northeast Asia – but also to its west, spanning Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and the eastern coast of Africa. Finding a way to better integrate India into the larger pan-Asian region to the east, as well as better cooperating on issues that are of significant concern to India, such as counterterrorism and maritime security to the west, could go a long way toward creating an Indo-Pacific strategy that aligns with both US and Indian interests.
How to Realize the Indo-Pacific Strategy
First, a compelling Indo-Pacific strategy needs to incorporate an economic through-line that offers an alternative to China’s expansive regional economic framework. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) eliminated Washington’s proactive model for trade. Both China and India advocate an alternative trade grouping, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – an agreement of more limited ambition but whose presence, without the prospect of US leadership, underscores how the United States has withered its ability to shape regional trade rules of the road. The Trump administration should reconsider joining the TPP, especially given the leadership gains it would engender from re-engaging with partner countries. A TPP-rooted economic strategy for the broader region could ultimately incentivize India to join the trade pact.
Second, and closely related, Washington should champion Indian membership in APEC as a show of good faith on Indian priorities. India, with a more than $2 trillion economy, has been denied entry for more than twenty years, and its exclusion makes little strategic sense. Keeping India on the outside of a multilateral organization vital to economic activity across Asia undermines the strategic goal of expanding the Asia-Pacific framework to a larger Indo-Pacific region. An APEC with India included would expand the organization’s geography to more accurately reflect the centres of economic activity at scale, and it would be a concrete step toward realizing an Indo-Pacific region.
Third, the Trump administration should develop clear infrastructure investment initiatives with India, Japan, Australia and others to provide transparent financing alternatives to China’s BRI, as Tillerson proposed. This is an excellent idea, but it lacks an implementation strategy. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin initially rejected capital base expansion for the World Bank but thankfully changed his position, which should permit the United States to partner with other countries on infrastructure finance within a multilateral framework.
Existing US-India-Japan consultations include a working group on infrastructure, which could identify opportunities. Tokyo and New Delhi have been working closely on this front through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor partnership, whose vision for cross-regional connectivity is designed to link the larger Indian Ocean region via infrastructure development, skills training, people-to-people exchange and cooperative projects in areas including agriculture, health and disaster management.
Fourth, Washington should take seriously the priorities and suggestions emerging from the IORA platform. The United States became an IORA dialogue partner in 2012, and it could more actively rely on the body as a forum for ideas and new Indo-Pacific-wide initiatives. Australia, India and Indonesia are active members; the group also includes Kenya, Somalia, South Africa and Tanzania; and US allies France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom are dialogue partners. The IORA has a wide range of focus areas, from maritime security and disaster management to the blue economy, which comprises economic activity centred on the oceans, and women’s empowerment, so it should not be difficult to develop test projects amenable to all.
Fifth, diplomatic coordination should be increased not only among the Quad countries but also throughout the larger region. It could encompass regional counter-narcotics and counterterrorism efforts or relate to specific political or humanitarian crises, such as those in the Maldives and along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Such a framework will require, within the US system, reaching across bureaucratic boundaries. (The announcement that an Indian defence attaché will be posted at the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain indicates a move in this direction.)
Successive US administrations have strengthened ties with India and developed strategic frameworks for a broad US-India partnership. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific emphasis could be its most consequential strategic initiative, building on the work done by the Obama administration’s US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. But it will need – very soon – to identify and implement some specific projects for the grand strategy to become reality.
Elements of the Indo-Pacific Strategy
While addressing the 2018 International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, the US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis expounded several themes of the strategy. A brief description of those is as under:
— Expanding attention on the maritime space: “The maritime commons is a global good, and the sea lanes of communication are the arteries of economic vitality for all,” he said, adding that “Our vision is to preserve that vitality by helping our partners to build up naval and law-enforcement capabilities and capacities to improve monitoring and protection of maritime borders and interests.”
— Interoperability: The United States recognizes that a network of allies and partners is a force multiplier for peace, the secretary said. “Through our security cooperation, we are building closer relationships between our militaries and our economies, all of which contribute to enduring trust,” he added.
— Strengthening the rule of law, civil society and transparent governance: “This is the sunlight that exposes the malign influence that threatens sustainable economic development,” Mattis said.
— Private sector-led development: The United States recognizes the region’s need for greater investment, including infrastructure, he noted, adding, “We are reinvigorating our development and finance institutions to enable us to be better, more responsive partners. US agencies will work more closely with regional economic partners to provide end-to-end solutions that not only build tangible products, but also transfer experience and American know-how so growth is high value and high quality, not empty promises and surrender of economic sovereignty.”
Will India fall into the American Trap?
China’s rise is not an isolated case. Rather it is precursor to the rise of the Asian continent. The emergence of China and India represents the trend of developing countries stepping into the forefront of the world and striving for fairer global economic and political rules.
Westerners hold a complicated feeling viewing the development of China and India. Western opinion currently favours India, a result of temporary geopolitical calculation. With India’s continuous economic success, antipathy toward New Delhi will emerge in the West sooner or later. India is enjoying smooth diplomacy at the moment, but it won’t last very long. In probably 20 years, its relations with the West will become highly complicated.
For Washington, driving a wedge between China and India is its best Asia policy. Its main allies in Asia also actively pursue it, which was almost realized during the Doklam crisis in the summer of 2017. As long as China and India maintain normal relations, security competition in the Indian Ocean won’t occur between these two countries. The US will do its utmost to be the dominant player, barring any country from sharing power.
The Indian media is now full of vigilance toward China building ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But China has no military base in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean signifies a transportation route to China, but for the US, it is a major battlefield for consolidating its global hegemony. In the long run, the primary contradictions in the area will occur between the US and India. US’ Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean will increasingly become a bone of contention, irritating India as the US enhances its status.
Two possible scenarios can unfold in Asia. China and India might be dragged by the US into an exhausting dispute with the rise of the two both delayed, or China and India can resolve or shelve disputes to promote their own development with Asia as a whole embarking on modernization.
The Indo-Pacific strategy is a trap set by Washington to bury the rise of China and India. But judging by New Delhi’s response to this strategy so far, India has its own considerations. There is little possibility that India will fall into the trap.