The US has formalised a slight rhetorical change -- and it's part of a bigger effort to counter China

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesUS Defense Secretary James Mattis.
  • The Defence Department changed the name of US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command on Wednesday.
  • The change is meant to reflect the US’s growing relationship with India.
  • But the rhetorical shift is also likely part of a gambit to undercut China’s growing clout in the region.

On Wednesday during a change-of-command ceremony for US Pacific Command, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the command will change its name to US Indo-Pacific Command to better reflect what he described as linkages and values in the region.

“Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability,” Mattis said in prepared remarks during the ceremony, which marked Adm. Phil Davidson’s assumption of command from Adm. Harry Harris, who will take over as US ambassador to South Korea.

“We stand by our partners and support their sovereign decisions, because all nations large and small are essential to the region if we’re to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace,” Mattis added. “Further, in recognition of increasing stability [between] the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command. Over many decades this command has repeated adapted to changing circumstance, and today carries that legacy forward as America focuses west.”

US Pacific Command has about 375,000 civilian and military personnel assigned to it. It covers more of the world than any of the five over geographic combatant commands and shares a border with each of its counterparts.

US Pacific Command Indo-Pacific Command map area of responsibilityUS Defence DepartmentThe area of responsibility for US Pacific Command, now known as US Indo-Pacific Command.

The renaming does not mean more resources will be assigned to the command, and Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia under President Barack Obama, said the change would be “ultimately a symbolic act” unless the US pursues more investment and initiatives in the region.

The change is meant to underscore the US’s growing military relationship with India, with whom the US has worked to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

Davidson, the incoming head of the command, said during his confirmation hearing in April that the US-India relationship “is potentially the most historic opportunity we have in the 21st century, and I intend to pursue that quite rigorously.”

The phrase “Indo-Pacific” is not new in US foreign-policy discussions, but it has been embraced by President Donald Trump as away to dilute China’s primacy by expanding the conception of the region.

“I don’t think that’s just a ploy by the US and others. I think it’s a reflection of reality,” Rory Medcalf, the head of the national security college at Australian National University who has written about the term,told Politico last year.

Some countries in Asia have grown concerned about Trump, believing his stated policy goals could mean a reduced US presence in the region at a time when China is seeking to expand its influence. (Some have sought alternatives to partnering with the US for defence.)

The US, for its part, has continued to try to counter Beijing. During his hearing in April, Davidson told senators that China has a particular focus on undersea warfare and was “stealing [US] technology in just about every domain and trying to use it to their advantage.”

China has also used its One Belt, One Road initiative to grow its sway in Asia and across the Pacific, offering loans and financing for an array of infrastructure and other development programs. Beijing has been criticised for using those economic relationships to gain leverage over smaller countries.

US Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said in March that China was “weaponizing capital” around the globe.

“Americans’ vision is shared by most nations in the region, where every state’s sovereignty is respected, no matter its size, and it’s a region open to investment in free, fair, and reciprocal trade not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threat of coercion,” Mattis said Wednesday. “For the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads.”

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