t appears that the administration of US President Donald Trump is finally putting some meat on the bones of its Asia policy. According to news reports, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan will unveil the United States’ new “Indo-Pacific strategy” at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), which will be held in Singapore beginning this Friday.
A story by USNI News quoted the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, Randall Schriver, as stating at a roundtable meeting in Malaysia in April that “our National Defense Strategy [NDS] and National Security Strategy [NSS] identify the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater, and I think Secretary Shanahan will talk about that at Shangri-La and what it means to be a priority theater.”
FLESHING OUT THE ‘INDO-PACIFIC DREAM’
Well, it’s about time. More than two years in, and the Trump administration has been pretty sparse in laying out its approach toward the all-important Asia-Pacific region. Before these recent statements, the best we knew about Trump’s strategy toward the region was his enunciation of the so-called “Indo-Pacific dream,” made at the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
During that speech, Trump laid out the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). It took a while, however, before his administration said much more about it, but lately some details have been becoming clear. According to an article in The Diplomat by Prashanth Parameswaran, Trump’s FIOP strategy has “three pillars – security, economics, and governance.” In particular, this means respect for “democracy, human rights, good governance, and civil society.”
This is still pretty thin gruel, and Parameswaran points out that a lot more needs to be done to make this a real strategy. For these reasons, Shanahan’s speech at the upcoming SLD will be closely scrutinized and dissected.
GOING BEYOND THE NATIONAL DEFENSE STRATEGY
The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified four countries as threats to the United States: Iran, China, Russia and North Korea. Two of these countries are in the Indo-Pacific region, and one – Russia – touches on it (Russia has possessions in the North Pacific, as well as a notable military presence, but its Pacific Fleet is a shadow of its former self).
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remain a headache for Washington, but it is China that most challenges the United States over the long term. China’s military capacities continue to advance and expand, and its posture in the South China Sea and other parts of the far western Pacific has become increasingly aggressive.
Both the NDS and NSS articulate a regional strategy of deep engagement with Asia. In particular, they warned that China was seeking to displace the United States and in so doing establish a Sino-centric order in the region through economic inducements, information operations and military coercion. These reports were highly critical of Chinese actions in the South China Sea (SCS), particularly regarding Beijing’s growing military presence in and around the Spratly Islands, which “endangers the free flow of maritime trade, threatens the sovereignty of other nations and undermines regional stability.”