In response to China’s increasing political and economic clout in the region of South Asia, Washington has intensified its efforts to promote its concept of the free and open Indo Pacific.
Donald Trump’s administration has borrowed this expression from Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe, who described his vision for the Indo Pacific region in a 2007 speech in the Parliament of India during his first term. Later on, Shinzō Abe defined the concept as a strategy aimed at transforming the Indo Pacific into a region free of violence and coercion (the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity) where the rule of law prevails and the market economy dominates thus ensuring prosperity in this part of the world.
It is noteworthy that the first official statement clarifying Washington’s vision for the region was made by US Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis during Asia’s annual security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, on 2 June 2018. The position, described by the head of the US Department of Defense, reflected the ideas in the United States’ National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (issued at the end of 2017), which focus on security in the Indo Pacific region and clearly describe China as mainly a “strategic competitor” for the first time.
In recent years, levels of cooperation on security in the Indo Pacific continued to increase steadfastly between the United States, Japan and Australia in the defense sphere. And their annual trilateral meetings laid the groundwork for US diplomacy in Asia. The USA has been boosting its defense ties with India on a bilateral basis and via holding annual military drills together with Japan and India, called Malabar. In addition, since the United States unveiled its new Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia in 2015 (with a price tag of $425 million), it has been increasingly helping key ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states ramp up their military capabilities. For now, Japan and Australia have been coordinating these efforts with the following nations: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Many observers think that the free and open Indo-Pacific region strategy (tasked with shaping the political landscape of the Asia Pacific region), promoted by Washington these days, manifests itself more and more clearly in the form of intensifying tensions between the United States and the PRC. Many commentators note that the US aims to essentially transform this region into a military alliance, i.e. a battle ground to be used to isolate China. In order to achieve these goals, the Trump administration has been strengthening its ties with Southeast Asian nations recently, under the pretext of conducting military exercises to ensure maritime security, thereby attempting to make these countries fall in line with the US anti-Chinese stance.
This is exemplified by the outcomes of a recent tour of Southeast Asian nations by David R. Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, completed on 6 September. During the trip, he held a series of consultations with political and military leaders of Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and East Timor urging them to make a more substantial contribution to ensuring security in the waters of the South China Sea.
Although Washington pays lip service to the Asiacentric vision for the region, key to the ten ASEAN nations, in reality, it only aims to hinder cooperation between the association and China. By strengthening collaboration between its naval forces and those of Southeast Asian nations under a “worthy” pretext of combatting piracy and terrorism, Donald Trump’s administration is continuing to pursue its main goal, i.e. to eject Beijing from its dominant position in a strategically important area with its maritime trade routes.
By pursuing its China containment policy, the Pentagon has made its intention to actively develop ties in the military and technical sphere with the ten ASEAN countries clear to the leadership of China. With this goal in mind, the United States held the joint military exercise SEACAT (involving naval forces of the USA, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and 8 ASEAN countries with the exception of Laos and Myanmar), which finished on 30 August, in an attempt to clearly show Beijing its readiness to respond with force to any steps to “militarize” the South China Sea. During the active phase of the drills, 15 military operations near the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Strait, the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea were conducted.
The exercise was also accompanied by a military conference, organized by INDOPACOM (the United States Indo-Pacific Command) and the Royal Thai Armed Forces in Bangkok from 26-28 August. The event was attended by army chiefs of staff from nations in the Indo Pacific region, and overall, 33 Asian countries were represented there. During the conference, Philip S. Davidson, the Commander of INDOPACOM, persisted with his statements that PRC’s aggressive policies and growing military ambitions were the key threat to regional security, and attempted to persuade the participants that the United States and ASEAN needed to take a stand against militarization of the South China Sea.
The RAND Corporation, a US nonprofit institution specializing in research and analysis, has on more than one occasion noted the importance for the United States of enhancing defense cooperation with nations of Southeast Asia, highlighting that the US administration needed to urgently improve intelligence capabilities of its regional allies in response to the potential threat posed by the pushy and rapidly developing China.
In support of the aforementioned conclusions drawn by the RAND Corporation, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (which receives financial support from the USDepartment of State via the American Australian Association (a non-profit organization) and Northrop Grumman Corporation) also published a report about the need for the United States to increase its military presence in the Pacific Ocean. Among other things, the report highlights the fact that the might of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was growing. To be more convincing, the document is interspersed with scary tales. For instance, it says that if there was a conflict between the United States and China, since Beijing already holds a dominant position in the air and the skies, apparently, the PLA would be capable of destroying US military bases via missile strikes in the region “within a matter of hours”. It is also worth noting the fact that the aforementioned report was released at the time when the 2020 military budget was being negotiated on the Capitol Hill, and was used to justify increased spending by the Pentagon on containing the threat posed by the aggressive PRC via military means.
Anti-Chinese sentiments are increasingly being stoked by more and more politicians and even US ambassadors, whose diplomatic status ought to prevent them from engaging in blatant propaganda or making statements that fuel the confrontation with one of the nations that the United States has diplomatic ties with.
For instance, during his speech at the Fourth (ministerial) Indian Ocean Conference (held in the Maldives), Admiral Harry Binkley Harris, the former head of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) and the US Ambassador to South Korea, sharply criticized China’s efforts to build military facilities on islands in the South China Sea and talked about the “supposed” pressure applied by Beijing on ASEAN nations. He ramped up the anti-Chinese rhetoric in his talk by accusing China of pursuing “predatory economic policies” that were behind China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and by propagating the US administration’s favorite view that China’s investment funds were “toxic” as they were supposedly aimed at enticing countries into a debt trap.
In this climate, it is not surprising that such actions taken by Washington and its promotion of the free and open Indo Pacific strategy are viewed with skepticism in Moscow as well as Beijing. Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov
has noted on more than one occasion that by lending its support to the aforementioned concept, the United States is attempting to draw India into a confrontation with the PRC, as well as the “always agreeable” Australians and Japanese, and to also deprive ASEAN of the central role it plays in resolving the region’s security issues.
On 3 November, shortly before the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit began, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev highlighted that Russia was in the process of building constructive ties with Asia and had no intention of pressuring any nations, and that Moscow and other external players ought to play the role of facilitators in this region.
Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.