Preeminence or Partnership? The United States in the Indo-Pacific

The release of the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report by the U.S. Department of Defense last month has given further shape to the United States’ vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The document underscores the linkages between economics, governance, and security and stresses the importance of allies and partners. However, it also reveals the contradiction between the U.S. aspiration to sustain global military preeminence and its conviction that “no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.”

Just as in 2017 when President Donald Trump announced his vision in a speech at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, maritime Southeast Asia was once again in the spotlight at the IPSR’s release, published the same day that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan gave his remarks at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The timing, the venue, and the vehicle suggest the prominent role that the defense establishment will play in the strategy’s implementation. The 55-page report is anchored on prior security guiding documents, notably the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

But while the report unsurprisingly focuses on defense, it also recognizes the strong connection between economics, governance, and security. It cites U.S. efforts to respond to regional connectivity demands through the passage of the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development, or BUILD, Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. It also notes the creation of the Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative “to help countries attract high-quality investment and counter corruption and coercive threats to their sovereignty, by strengthening civil society and good governance.” The ability to mobilize private capital to bear on the region’s burgeoning infrastructure requirements will surely provide a robust alternative to industrial policy and state-backed financing.

In regional affairs, the report calls out China, described as a revisionist power, for employing its increasing economic leverage to obtain security and strategic interests. It also mentions the vulnerability of states with weak and illiberal governance, such as Cambodia, to malign external influence. However, overplaying the economics-governance-security nexus carries the potential risk of over-securitizing Chinese public diplomacy (seen as influence operations) and investments (seen as debt traps or wily means to secure access to strategic assets).

The report highlights the value of allies and partners as force multipliers.  Beyond the littoral states washed by the two interconnected oceans, the report also counts landlocked Mongolia and Nepal as part of the mega-region. It outlines the series of bilateral (e.g. U.S.-Japan, U.S.-South Korea alliances), trilateral (e.g. Malabar, Southern Jackaroo exercises), and regional security engagements that contribute to the establishment of a networked region. It recognizes the input of other Pacific powers such as the United Kingdom., France, and Canada in upholding the global commons. It also expresses support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-based security mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum.

Two notable undertakings the report cites, though does not expound upon, are the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise slated for this September and the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative. The latter holds great promise as regional coast guards face a myriad of challenges including illegal fishing, marine pollution, marine environment protection and responding to maritime incidents. The shift in emphasis from gray-hulled (naval) to white-hulled (coast guard) ships can also lower the risks of militarization and tensions in contested maritime spaces like the South and East China Seas.

The report emphasizes burden sharing and the need for other Indo-Pacific countries to invest in their own defense. However, for countries wanting to diversify their security partners, pressure to restrict procurement from other arms suppliers is seen as unwarranted interference in their sovereign choices. India, for instance, is pushing back on the U.S. demand to drop its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. The Philippines, one of the few countries in Southeast Asia lacking undersea capabilities, has also received a U.S. warning after expressing interest in obtaining Russian submarines. Countries in the region are jealous of their sovereignty and aware of their budget constraints—and some even have longstanding defense relations with non-Western suppliers. U.S. may need to better communicate or clarify its concerns as allies and partners deliberate on their procurement plans.

Finally, the report shows conflicting messages between United States’ desire to maintain its global military primacy (the second of the four National Defense Strategy goals) and its desire to see the mega-region not dominated by any one power. In recent years, geostrategic and geopolitical shifts have begun to challenge post-Cold War U.S. unipolarity. But such changes are neither exclusively harmful nor necessarily disadvantageous to America. Besides, despite Chinese and Russian investments in frontier asymmetric military and dual-use domains, the United States remains significantly ahead of its competitors in overall capability. While this is not a reason to become complacent, overstating the challenges to U.S. military primacy may only fuel enmity and further rivalry.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report reveals the current U.S. administration’s disdain for multipolarity in the international system as it is perceived to diminish U.S. power and influence—the same reason that China and Russia prefer it. This attitude persists even as the rise of regional and middle powers like India, South Korea, and Indonesia looks to benefit the mega-region as they transition to become net economic and security providers. Multipolarity is not a creation of Beijing or Moscow but rather an evolutionary process that Washington should welcome as it appreciates working with others.

The United States has long demonstrated its ability to work with friends and find common ground even with rivals. In these and future times, this ability will continue to be in great demand—especially in the most consequential region for U.S. national interests.