Confronting the Flaws in America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
In the last two years, President Donald Trump and his cabinet invested great efforts to portray the new “Indo-Pacific strategy” as a departure from past American policies in the region and as one of its major foreign policy projects. As of today, the details of the strategy remain classified, but a close examination of official documents and public speeches by the Trump cabinet reveals that the strategy is nothing new and appears to a large extent disconnected from the realities of the Indo-Pacific region. Because it is mainly driven by the regional competition with China, it fails to acknowledge the local dynamics that are changing the geopolitics of the area.
A China-Centered Strategy?
In the words of the Trump administration, the Indo-Pacific designates a region that extends from the Indian shores to the Pacific coast of the United States. Although the expression “Indo-Pacific” was already commonly used in India, Australia, and Japan, it became a major feature of American rhetoric towards Asia after a first speech by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the U.S.-Indian relationship in October 2017 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tillerson’s statement paved the way for Trump’s speech a month later during the APEC CEO Summit (a high-level event convened by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum for regional business leaders) in Vietnam in which he described a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” At first sight, the message from the Trump administration, filled with key words like “governance” and “cooperation,” was intended to provide a positive approach to Washington’s regional policy: the “Indo-Pacific dream” as coined by Trump himself. In a speech of November 2018, Vice President Mike Pence emphasized that “it excludes no nation” and that the ultimate goal is to promote prosperity in the region.
But beyond the rhetoric of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, the speeches and documents are primarily influenced by the expansion of China in the region rather than the development of the region itself. Tillerson’s speech described Chinese “predatory economics” in the area as the biggest challenge the United States and its partners should address. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy released in 2017 described a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” and denounced how “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” This was followed a few months later by the rebranding of the emblematic U.S. Pacific Command into the Indo-Pacific Command, a symbolic measure that was read in the region as an indicator that the Indo-Pacific strategy was primarily a military enterprise aiming at containing China’s expansion in both regions.
This permanent reference to Chinese expansion conflicts with the simultaneous promotion of American partnerships to the region. At the Shangri-La Summit of 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis assured his Asian counterparts that America does “not ask any country to choose between the United States and China.” In a speech to the APEC CEO Summit in November 2018, Vice President Mike Pence might have affirmed that the Indo-Pacific strategy was an inclusive one, but he went into details about Chinese opaque loans that “lead to staggering debt.” He clearly stated to his Asian audience “the United States offers a better option. We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence … We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.” This was a clear departure from Mattis’ prudence expressed in Singapore only a few months before. In substance, this current policy appears to derive largely from those of Trump’s predecessors and could be seen as the culmination of Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance.” But it is a pivot that is more openly confrontational: The bellicose tone of the administration and the explicit use of Cold War rhetoric in documents such as the National Security Strategy have framed the regional environment as a zero-sum game, according to which local states have to position themselves vis-à-vis two distinguishable blocs.
This logic also leads the Trump administration to focus its efforts on strengthening America’s partnership with India to counterbalance Beijing’s expansion, a calculus that again, finds its roots in the practices of the previous administrations. The idea was already prominent during the Bush presidency: Back then, it drove the administration’s efforts to get closer to Delhi, particularly through the expansion of military relations and the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement in 2005. The trend was prolonged under Obama’s presidency with the United States emerging as the second biggest supplier of arms sales to Delhi and the Indian armed forces becoming the most frequent contributor to military exercises with the U.S. armed forces. However, this counterbalancing tactic ignores the asymmetric nature of Chinese-Indian relations. It assumes an Indian ability to reach a potential balance with China that is contradicted by the enduring superiority of the latter over the former in many economic and military sectors, a reality that is well understood by officials in Delhi.
True, the Indian Navy clearly aims at countering Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean but overall the government is opting for a more ambivalent approach with Beijing that mixes elements of balancing and accommodation. Moreover, aligning too closely with the objectives of U.S. regional policy would go against the enduring tradition of India’s strategic autonomy. Therefore, the American objective of countering China assigns a supporting role to India that its decision-makers are neither able nor willing to fully embrace, as reflected by public statements from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi distancing himself from the U.S. Indo-Pacific approach.
Ignoring the New Political Dynamics Within the Indo-Pacific
By defining its Indo-Pacific approach through the lens of the great power competition, Washington’s policy is frozen in a decades-old vision of the region that misses the local dynamics at play. Beyond the strategic triangle with India and China, the American vision barely concedes any agency to the littoral states of the Indo-Pacific region. However, the last years have seen the emergence of countries in the area that now aspire to pursue their own policies, regardless of Washington’s preferences.
On the African shores of the Indian Ocean, Djibouti used to be an outpost for French and American forces in their war on terror: it is now becoming a hub for Asian and Gulf countries eager to access the African continent. Similarly, the current politics of small islands such as the Seychelles and the Maldives are barely influenced by U.S. grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Instead, they are shaped by financial and military investments of China, India, and the Gulf countries.
The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula used to be mere consumers of security, but they now see themselves as power brokers beyond the Gulf. A tiny country like the United Arab Emirates has been building military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland. Abu Dhabi played an instrumental role, alongside Saudi Arabia, in the settlement of Eritrean-Ethiopian dispute last year. At the same time, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are openly courting the Chinese by positioning themselves as active participants of the Belt and Road Initiative. In official meetings, representatives from Saudi Arabia present the Saudi Vision 2030 as a perfect opportunity for synergy with Chinese investors. While visiting Beijing in August 2016, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman portrayed the Belt and Road Initiative as “one of the main pillars of the Saudi Vision 2030 which would seek to make China among the Kingdom’s biggest economic partners.” Riyadh also announced it would be investing $10 billion into Pakistan’s deepwater port of Gwadar which happens to be a major recipient of Chinese funds for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Meanwhile, other Gulf monarchies promote their port facilities as perfect locations for Chinese shipping companies. The small port of Duqm in the Sultanate of Oman, well positioned on the coast of the Arabian Sea, is modernizing at a spectacular pace thanks to Chinese, and Indian, investments.
These cases are just a few examples of many exchanges that increasingly ignore U.S. regional policy and altogether spin a web of interregional relations from Eastern Africa, to the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, through to China. In fact, they are what gives texture to the Indo-Pacific concept, at least as much as the U.S.-Chinese conflict narrative that has taken root in Washington.
Overcoming the Contradictions of U.S. Indo-Pacific Policies
The United States should first take stock of this new layer of complexity. The Indo-Pacific region is not solely about China’s growth but also about local states becoming more autonomous in their foreign policies and more consequential. The perceived erosion of American credibility in supporting its allies and its inability to provide an alternative to the economic opportunities promised by China logically urge small countries to diversify their options.
Admittedly, the Trump administration already revised its Indo-Pacific policy after the first year to address these concerns. The National Security Strategy of 2017 and the renaming of the Indo-Pacific Command initially suggested that it was purely a military-driven approach without much left for other U.S. agencies. Starting in July 2018, a new emphasis was put forward on the economic dimension of the Indo-Pacific policy, as demonstrated by the multiple initiatives (BUILD Act, Asia EDGE, the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership) announced by Mike Pompeo during that summer. But these new programs are modest in design and resources, compared to those initiated by China with countries of the Indo-Pacific.
More importantly, it is hard for U.S. partners to reconcile Washington’s call to join its Indo-Pacific vision with the constant way Trump’s policies question the U.S. commitment to these partners. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has led allies like Japan and South Korea to revive their participation to another project, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that does include China. Both the “America First” rhetoric and Trump’s fundamental defiance for multilateralism put the Indo-Pacific approach at odds with reality.
For the states in the Indo-Pacific region, this produces a volatile environment where past allegiances and partnerships become looser and hedging between the United States and China is the new norm. On the short term, hedging is a very convenient halfway position to widen strategic and economic options without picking a side against another but it does not clarify the regional distribution of power. In other words, middle powers like the Gulf countries or small states like ASEAN members may find hedging between the United States and China to be their best course of action but it will be extremely difficult to sustain it if the zero-sum game mindset becomes the driving principle of Washington in the area.
The combination of this zero-sum game with the uncertainties surrounding American commitments to its partners will hardly defuse the instability in the region. In its current form, the bipolar rhetoric will only force countries into a dilemma that would be detrimental to their interests either way. Imposing this logic to the region would also require the United States to reassure its partners that if needed, U.S. forces will provide support, something partially addressed by the recent signature of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, but systematically contradicted by Trump’s political platform. If it is then unlikely that the Trump administration will drop its constant reference to “America First,” it could on the other side downplay the zero-sum dimension by decoupling its policy towards the Indo-Pacific from its China policy.
Instead, the regional policy should emphasize potential areas of cooperation such as securing maritime commons and strengthening regional institutions would prove more effective at attracting local partners. There is not a vacuum of power in the Indo-Pacific but a vacuum of governance that would help settling political disputes among local states and ensuring economic stability. U.S. diplomacy has been active in this field, by engaging with the Lower Mekong Initiative, APEC, ASEAN, or the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Joining other projects such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor led by India and Japan which provide investment for infrastructures in Eastern Africa could also contribute to the regional stability. In the end, putting all these efforts at the center of the policy while toning down the anti-Chinese dimension would prove more effective. Moreover, for American regional interests, shaping an inclusive Indo-Pacific security architecture may also eventually force China to play according to those rules.
Jean-Loup Samaan is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies attached to the UAE National Defense College. He is a former advisor at the French Ministry of Defense and the NATO Defense College. The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author writing as an academic. They do not reflect the views of the UAE National Defense College, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, nor any other entity or government.
Image: U.S. State Department photo