Randall Schriver, the US Department of Defence Assistant Secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told media in April that Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan will unveil an updated US Indo-Pacific strategy at the Shangri-La Dialogue at the end of May, and the Indo-Pacific will be identified as the priority theatre, indicating the US will strengthen its military presence in the region.
Many changes in US foreign strategy and policy have been made by the current US administration. Former president Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy has been basically abandoned. Instead, the wording “Asia-Pacific” has been replaced by “Indo-Pacific,” representing a new US regional strategy.
Will this lead to changes in China-US strategic competition? What impact will it have on the strategic competition?
The Trump administration is quite proactive in shaping and advocating its Indo-Pacific strategy. The US strategy “free and open Indo-Pacific” was raised at the APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, 2017. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the US made clear that the Indo-Pacific is at the top of its strategic agenda.
In May 2018, Washington changed the name of its Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command, strengthening its coordination between The Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in military deployment. Meanwhile, frequent cooperation has taken place between the US, Japan, Australia and India, especially in terms of politics, economy, and security.
The Trump administration is promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy because it intends to compete with China and offset China’s growing influence in its surrounding areas.
China recently proposed several initiatives including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. China’s rising influence in the region is making the US feel threatened over its dominant status in the Asia-Pacific.
The US, therefore, seeks to strengthen its strategic containment of China to contain China’s regional influence. But as the gap between the two countries narrows, it is tough for the US to rely on itself to compete with China. Mobilising allies and partners to follow its lead became increasingly important.
At the same time, there is also a consensus among Japan, India and Australia that they do not want to see China replace the US as the leading power in this region.
That being said, expanding Asia-Pacific strategy to Indo-Pacific strategy can serve three purposes for the US. First, the US can draw India into Asia-Pacific regional affairs to better contain China. Second, China’s strategic impact can be hedged by both land and sea. Third, the US may gain an advantage in regional institutional construction, so China could be isolated as much as possible.
However, the outcome of the US Indo-Pacific strategy not only requires strategic resources and strategic will, but also relies on the support of its allies, including Japan, Australia and India.
Looking back, the idea of Indo-Pacific is nothing but a new concept in an old framework. As early as 2007, Japan proposed a strategic alliance among US, Japan, Australia and India – Quad. The four nations once collaborated closely on security issues. But due to their differences in strategies and interests, the alliance fell apart. Washington still needs to solve the cooperation problem among the four countries. Otherwise, the history will repeat it soon.
There is no lack of common interests among these four powers and China. Even Australia, a loyal US ally, had reservations about the security cooperation under the framework of Quad out of consideration for China-Australia relations. More importantly, with regional collaboration becoming the mainstream in the current era, the Indo-Pacific strategy is obviously out of date.
China-US relations are the most significant bilateral ties in today’s world. The Asia-Pacific is the region where the two countries interact the most, have the closest intertwined interests, and most significant contradictions.
Considering the relevance of the regional cooperation and the long-term formation of a regional identity, the strategy of Asia-Pacific can hardly be replaced by Indo-Pacific overnight. Even if the US identifies the Indo-Pacific region as its strategic priority, it cannot control other nations’ choices in the region.
If the US deliberately contains China through the Indo-Pacific strategy, it will inevitably intensify bilateral strategic competition, harm regional peace and development, and lose support from most countries in the region.