Parsing the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: A Strategic Narrative

Merieleen Engtipi
November 24, 2019


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The US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (USIP) was brought out in June this year by the US Department of Defense (DoD). The introductory message by the US Secretary of Defense provides the US-Pacific narrative, linked to its Indo-Pacific neighborhood through “unbreakable bonds of shared history, culture, commerce, and values.” It states that the destinies of the Indo-Pacific and the US are forged by history, with US commitments to the region have been through both investments and through the sacrifices of men, to sustain the freedom, openness, and opportunity of the Indo-Pacific region. The two-centuries long engagement of the US with the region through its trade and commerce recognizes the importance of global trade and commerce, equal opportunity for prosperity, and sovereignty of the countries of the region. Since the end of World War II, the US created a network of allies. The confrontation with imperialism and fascism brought the US to the doorstep of the region in the first half of the 20th century, and after that, the US also had to secure a fence against communism during the Cold War years.

The US emphasizes that the alliances formed and the forward posture of the US forces helped create the “stability necessary for economic prosperity in the United States and the region.” The US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (USIP), takes the readers through a history lane that demonstrates the historical ties of the US with the region through significant events of the past. Firstly, it states that partnership, and not domination, has guided the US in establishing post-second World War relations with Japan and South Korea, that stimulated economic boom. Secondly, it states that an open and democratic society, aided by the US, helped Taiwan blossom into a high-tech powerhouse. Thirdly, the US gave foundational support to institutions like ASEAN, APEC, and the Asian Development Bank in the Cold War years, which contributed to the growth of the region. Furthermore, the US advocated the admission of China into the World Trade Organization with the intent to liberalize China’s economy. The USIP report underscores that the future necessities of the US are inherently tied with regional stability in the Indo-Pacific and support US diplomatic and economic aspirations.

The USIP qualifies the Indo-Pacific as a “priority theatre” for the US Department of Defense (DoD). Indo-Pacific shelters ten largest standing armies of the world and is a region critical to maritime security, with 9 out of 10 busiest seaports are in the region. About 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the disputed territory of the South China Sea alone. In the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape, the Report has addressed the trends and challenges faced by the US in the region, primarily from the activities of the trio-China, Russia, and the DPRK. China has been rightly projected as the US’ primary competitor. Confronted by its assertive attitude, the US has termed China as a ‘revisionist power’ ready to engage in friction and employ non-military coercive tools when it comes to promoting its national interest. It characterizes Russia as a ‘revitalized malign actor’ that seeks to influence states and achieve interest using economic, diplomatic, and military means. The DPRK continues to remain a security challenge, which has been difficult to tame or influence. The USIP report mentioned the state as a ‘rogue nation.’ In essence, the Report highlights that the US might be losing military advantage over China and Russia, and hence signifies the importance and reliance on the allies and partners of the US in the region.

The vision of the USIP is one of free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), which stems from principles that have guarded the current international order, such as respect for sovereignty, peaceful solution of disputes, free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and adherence to international rules and norms. In FOIP, “free” stands for the freedom to exercise sovereignty, regardless of size, and freedom from coercion by larger states of the region. At the national level, it also signifies good governance and adherence to fundamental rights and liberties of the citizens. The vision of ‘open’ indicates the promotion of “sustainable growth and connectivity” in the region, with access to “international waters, airways, and cyber and space domain” and resort to dispute mechanisms in territorial and maritime disputes. In economic terms, it implies an environment that promotes fair, reciprocal, open, and transparent agreements between nations.

The US remains central in the Indo-Pacific strategy, with a mission to maintain its leadership and influence in the region. It rejects the dominance of any single power, and, therefore, the concept is vital to maintaining the ‘balance of power’ in the region. Resting on the foundation of mutual respect, responsibility, priorities, and accountability, the FOIP strategy of the US calls for collective action of the allies, partners, and aspiring partners to “either compete, deter, and, if necessary fight and win together.” According to USIP, cooperation means sharing responsibilities and burdens; wherein, the US expects the allies and partners to share defense responsibility that will ease the security burden of the US both financially and strategically. As such, the main objectives outlined to sustain US influence in the region have been in pursuit of “Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region.”

The three ‘Ps’ are the ‘Line of Efforts’ of the USIP. Preparedness through the deployment of its resources that enhances the “lethality, resilience, agility, and readiness of the Joint Force.” The USIP relies on the security alliances, partnership (strengthening and expanding), and establishing engagements in the region. The USIP has also sought to engage in various networked through bilateral and trilateral partnerships, and promote quadrilateral and multilateral engagements to sustain its influence and vision for the region. The USIP factors the strength of its allies, partners, and friends in the grand strategy of Indo-Pacific. More importantly, it identifies the challenges faced in the region and calls for collective action to promote peace, prosperity, the stability of the region through burden-sharing. Lastly, the USIP endorses a strong vision, robust strategy, and a common imagined future that is acknowledged and upheld by all the states in the Indo-Pacific.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***