- President Donald Trump’s administration laid out a new strategy in the Pacific that didn’t mention China once, but highlighted ways to combat its influence.
- It looks like the US will try to boost ties with India to counter China’s influence in the Pacific.
- China has built and militarised islands in the South China Sea and tried to unilaterally dictate who can sail in the shipping lane that sees trillions in annual commerce, and the US committed to halting that.
President Donald Trump’s State Department laid out a new approach, as well as a new name, for its Asia-Pacific policy on Monday.
Alex N. Wong, the deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, defined “the strategic concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” before reporters at a briefing on Monday. Without using any strong language it lays out a confrontational path towards China’s regional ambitions.
Since taking office, Trump has addressed issues in Asia as a high priority. From elevating North Korea to a main focus of US foreign policy to making trade with China a major issue in economic policy, the rise in population, as well as economic and military might, in the region has been a major focus.
“We want the nations of the Indo-Pacific to be free from coercion, that they can pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose in the region,” Wong said.
Though Wong didn’t specify what coercive forces the Trump administration would address, experts see China’s influence and strength in the region as the main force the US needs to hedge against.
By militarizing and building a series of artificial islands and unilaterally trying to dictate what can happen in international waters where trillions in trade passes annually, the US and China’s neighbours fear it could try to lock down the waterway by building in the sea in violation of international law.
From Wong on what the Trump administration expects of a “free” Indo-Pacific region:
“We first and foremost mean open sea lines of communication and open airways. These open sea lines of communication are truly the lifeblood of the region. And if you look at world trade, with 50% of trade going through the Indo-Pacific along the sea routes, particularly through the South China Sea, open sea lanes and open airways in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly vital and important to the world.”
Without naming the country, the State Department has raised the prospect of a showdown with China in pursuing free sea lines of communication. The US Navy regularly challenges China’s maritime claims with freedom of navigation patrols, whereby US warships sail inside China’s claimed sea territory, something that Beijing hotly disputes.
Under Trump, these naval maneuvers have already increased.
Wong later detailed a strategy that could counter China’s massive One Belt One Road initiative, whereby China has invested heavily in countries across Asia and Africa, offering them what some call coercive or predatory loans for building infrastructure.
“We want to assist the region in doing infrastructure in the right way, infrastructure that truly does drive integration and raises the GDPs of the constituent economies, not weigh them down,” Wong said, in what could be seen as another veiled snipe at China.
From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific with purpose
A more visible pivot in orienting the US as a counter-balance to China comes in the term used for the region, which Wong admitted was “significant” for two reasons – that India is a big player in region and that the US wants India to step up as a bigger influence.
“India is a nation that is invested in a free and open order. It is a democracy. It is a nation that can bookend and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region,” Wong said.
India has increased military-to-military ties with the US and its allies as China becomes more assertive and powerful in the Pacific. The US even floated the idea of including India in the F-35 program, and thereby providing them with a powerful military counter to China’s growing stealth jet program.
In Wong’s entire explanation, he didn’t mention China specifically once, but did praise India as a possible partner in achieving US goals.
But even without hearing its name, Beijing can be assured that the US has put together a plan to stop its advance towards regional hegemony.