By Qian Feng
The US Senate Armed Services Committee recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 that included a Pacific Deterrence Initiative(PDI). In the same period, three US aircraft carrier strike groups appeared in the Indo-Pacific waters. According to foreign media reports, the US had taken frequent moves recently to reinforce its Indo-Pacific strategy for containment of China.
Since the beginning of new century, the Indo-Pacific region is quickly emerging as one of the global economy centers, which has become more integrated with economic globalization and evolved to be a major production base and trade and energy corridor in the world. Countries in the region share a strong desire for economic integration and growinginter-connectivity. Some of them were at first quite keen about the US’ initiative to join the region. They had high hopes for its alleged promotion of “free, fair and mutually beneficial trade” based on open investment and inter-connectivity and of sustainable economic growth. Meanwhile, some countries in the Indo-Pacific region have mounting suspicions about China’s rise, and more or less want to leverage the US to balance China’s growing influence in the region.
However, the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, respectively promulgated by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department last year, further specified the overall conception and implementation of America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”. Although Washington claimed to build a new framework in such fields as security, politics, economy, and trade, and values and co-build a regional order in the Indo-Pacific with its allies and partners, it has, in reality, adopted military means as the primary, even dominant, policy tool to push the strategy. In contrast, economic cooperation and infrastructure construction that regional countries have pinned high hopes toplay a tiny part despite all the big talks. It’s clear that the Indo-Pacific strategy, as suspected, is just another move by the US to curb China with its military strength under the pretext of cooperation. It has made regional countries more worried that they may be forced to “take sides” amid the escalating China-US strategic rivalry.
Objectively speaking, either the “key countries” like Japan and India, or the ASEAN, the geographical center of Indo-Pacific, find the US’ move hard to accept and inconsistent with their interests. Japan, which upholds development through trade, expects the strategy to focus on economic cooperation across the oceans in hopes of fostering a broader regional, interconnected economic, and trade market. In this mentality, it has been more cautious given the improved relation with China in recent years. Tokyo even avoided the previous expression of “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” by replacing “strategy” with “conception” in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2019.
Washington views New Delhi as the key to the success of the “Indo-Pacific strategy” and the containment of China. New Delhi’s China policy has indeed been consistently passive, yet its “strategic independence” principle goes counter to “America first,” and the country has openly stated several times that “Indo-Pacific” is an open, non-corporate geographical concept. This means maintaining the current balance among major countries continues to be the best option for India to protect its own interests.
Not long ago, when I discussed the "Indo-Pacific strategy" with an ASEAN diplomat in China, he said ASEAN doesn’t support any anti-China policy and will adhere to its stance of “anti-exclusiveness and not taking sides”. He explained why the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific published last year explicitly used the word Indo-Pacific - it is a direct response to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and states ASEAN’s position on this subject. Without the word, the US may not realize that the ASEAN document was targeted at its Indo-Pacific strategy, the diplomat said.
In this election year, the Trump administration is eager to push the Indo-Pacific strategy as it is without any doubt a rare multilateral diplomatic framework presented by the administration in the past three and more years, and also a presentable “diplomatic feat” it could brag about to refute domestic criticism. The problem is that the more military input it invests, the more it will put China on guard and repel more countries. Additionally, the increased input will reveal the true color of the strategy as a disguise of the superpower’s hegemony based on dollar and military dominance.
(The author Dr Qian Feng is the director and researcher of the Research Department at the National Strategy Institute, Tsinghua University)