Change of Guard in the US and Indo-Pacific Strategy – A View

Anil Chopra, JP Joshi, Air Power Asia, Security, Indo-Pacific, India, USA, China

The US declassified a Secret 10-page document titled, “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” (Framework), on 12th January, 2021 (US EST). This document would not normally have been due for public release until the year 2043. The Framework also had an attached statement by Robert C. O’Brien, Assistant to the President for National Security, dated the 05th of January. The last paragraph of this 2-page attached document indicates that the declassification “demonstrates, with transparency, America’s strategic commitments to the Indo-Pacific and to our allies and partners in the region.” This White House upload thus seeks to place on public record America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, during the Trump administration. This declassification and subsequent public release may have been linked to an effort at ensuring continuity of the strategic framework in the Indo-Pacific, through the transition in the US Administration.

President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Image Source: hstoday.us

President Trump approved the Framework for implementation in February 2018 across Executive Branch departments and agencies, to ensure a whole-of-government approach, based on this Framework. This document thus served as the “Trump Administration’s overarching strategic guidance for implementing the President’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) within the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.” The NSS recognised the “growing rivalry between free and repressive visions of the future” between the US and most specifically China to a large extent, and as a consequence the “unprecedented challenges that Indo-Pacific nations face to their sovereignty, prosperity, and peace.” The growing assertiveness of China; the strategic competition between the US and China due to the divergent nature and goals of their respective political and economic systems; as also China’s practice of circumventing international rules and norms to gain an advantage were some of the challenges that the 2017 NSS was designed to address, in this region. The NSS also prompted changes in nomenclature, from the previously Asia-Pacific, to Indo-Pacific, as also the renaming of the US Military Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command on May 31, 2018. The change signified the shifting of the centre of gravity from the Pacific Ocean, westwards, as the Indian Ocean constitutes a major trade and energy supply route to the countries of the region. India thus becomes an important military power in this region, which can significantly and effectively contribute to maintaining the freedom of the lines of communications through the Indian Ocean.

US Unifioed Combatantn Commands. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The idea of Indo-Pacific can be traced back to the Aug 22nd, 2007 speech in the Indian parliament by the then Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. He spoke of history and geography bringing us to “the confluence of the two seas”. In his rousing speech he spoke of “ Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India”, “broader Asia”, “The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity”, “we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests”, as also, “By Japan and India coming together in this way, this “broader Asia” will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.” Abe further emphasised that “In addition, as maritime states, both India and Japan have vital interests in the security of sea lanes. It goes without saying that the sea lanes to which I refer are the shipping routes that are the most critical for the world economy.”

India Japan Relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Image Source: bestcurrentaffairs.com

The speech was very well received in India, but India thought it prudent to continue with its Cold war era policy of non-alignment. India, under the Congress led governments had been content to let China be, after the two sides had agreed to peace and tranquillity along the borders through bilateral agreements, since 1993, even though China was holding large swathes of Indian Territory in Aksai Chin since the late 50s, an area equal to the size of Switzerland. Improving strategic relations with the US was perceived to be as an act that would antagonise China, even though China continued to test the Indian resolve to defend its own territory, at different times. The government under PM Vajpayee took a tentative step in 2002 by signing an agreement, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Relations between India and the US started to warm up, with a “deepening commercial and strategic partnership”, after the two countries signed the landmark civilian nuclear cooperation deal in 2008.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis signed COMCASA

The process of enhancing the Indo-US partnership accelerated under PM Modi’s government, from being a buyer-seller relationship to one of a strategic alliance in the Indo-Pacific. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was the second military agreement signed in August 2016, which would facilitate joint operations and interoperability between the two militaries. After the Doklam standoff with China in 2017, India signed another agreement, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in Sep 2018. China’s blatant aggression in 2020 and the Galwan conflict in June 2020 galvanised the Indian leadership to now take a considered decision to stand up to, and fight the Chinese belligerence. On October 27th, 2020, India and the US inked the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA). With this, the two countries now have the four agreements that are foundational defence pacts that India “needs to sign to enter into any kind of military alliance and obtain leading edge weapons and communications systems from the US”, which could be key in countering a belligerent China, in the short to medium term.

(L-R) US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. BECA Agreement signed during 2+2 meeting in New Delhi. Image Source: bbc.com

Starting with the 90s, China has grown economically, industrially, technologically, and militarily, much faster than India. It had also accelerated infrastructure development in the border regions, as also expanded its military industrial infrastructure and production. China has as a consequence, become the most economically strong, as well as the most powerful military power, of the region. This, coupled with the ascent of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and also as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, and finally as President of China in March 2013, unbridled power has been consolidated in one man. On assuming power, Xi ran a ruthless campaign against corruption, eliminated a large number of political rivals, smothered dissent, and strengthened his grip on power. In October 2016 he was bestowed with the title of ‘core leader’, raising his stature even further. In March 2018, the Constitution was amended to abolish the term limits for the country’s President and Vice President; this allows Xi to remain in office even beyond 2023. The already authoritarian Chinese political system is now being effectively steered by one man, and he holds unbridled personal political power. This has increasingly manifested as Chinese unilateral actions in, and all around China; be it Xinkiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, or Indonesia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shapes to become the most powerful leader in Beijing’s recent history. Image Source: undayguardianlive.com

Faced with the challenge of a powerful and belligerent China, each country in the region finds itself inadequate to counter this belligerence, and gigantic threat posed by China. Countering this threat requires a collective approach by the countries of the region. Every country has its own individual concerns with regards to China threat. They have been working on various viable approaches to counter the threat. The US took the lead and accommodated each of these shared concerns and approaches of its allies and partners while shaping the Framework. The Framework aims at strengthening the networking between countries, and also devising complementary approaches to the regional challenges. As brought out in the document, “These approaches included Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific concept, Australia’s Indo-Pacific concept, India’s Security and Growth for All Regions, the Republic of Korea’s New Southern Policy, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” In the words of Rory Medcalf, “the declassified strategy appears to acknowledge that an effective American regional policy is as much about following as leading.”

Free and Open Indo–Pacific. Green Circle covers ASEAN Region. Image Source: Wikipedia

The O’Brien document, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, notes that, “Beijing is increasingly pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a ‘common destiny’ envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. approach is different. We seek to ensure that our allies and partners – all who share the values and aspirations of a free and open Indo-Pacific – can preserve and protect their sovereignty. The Framework recognizes that a free and open Indo-Pacific depends on robust American leadership. The United States has a long history of fighting back against repressive regimes on behalf of those who value freedom and openness. As the world’s largest economy, with the strongest military and a vibrant democracy, it is incumbent on the United States to lead from the front.”

President Elect Joe Biden emphasises on a secure Indo-Pacific. Image Source: business-standard.com

With this as the background, the US national security challenge has been to “maintain strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region and promote a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence, while at the same time, cultivating areas of cooperation that will facilitate regional peace and prosperity.” This is a tall order for an extra regional power, even like the US, and thus necessitates the military enhancement and involvement of India, and its willing cooperation with the other US allies in the region, viz Australia and Japan. In exchange, the US seemed willing to take on certain long standing critical Indian issues: disputes with China with regards to the border, Brahmaputra and other river water issues; India’s membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group; promote US – India energy cooperation across all sources and technologies to diversify India’s energy sources and supplies; partner with India on cyber and space security and maritime domain awareness. Expand U.S.- India intelligence sharing and analytic exchanges creating a more robust intelligence partnership; work with India and Japan to help finance projects that enhance regional connectivity between India and countries of the region; besides other actions. The US sees India as a “net provider of security and Major Defense Partner” in the region, and is keen to “build a stronger foundation for defense cooperation and interoperability”, as also expand on defence trade, and cooperation on shared security concerns beyond the Indian Ocean region.

Indo-US Defence Partnership. Image Source: You Tube

The US rightfully feels that India’s alignment of its Indo-Pacific strategy with those of Australia, US, and Japan would be complementary, and would synergise the efforts of the quad nations. “The aim has been to create a quadrilateral security framework with India, Japan, Australia, and the United States as the principal hubs.” India has been moving in this direction for some years now, with the Indian military conducting regular exercises and improving interoperability with the US, as also with the other member nations of the Quad. The Chinese threat is real and may not be limited to the continental theatre, in the years to come. India occupies a commanding position in the Indian Ocean, but needs to have the capability and will to ensure freedom of the seas in the region; capability building takes time and resources. China is trying all methods to align Indian Ocean rim states with themselves; the string of pearls, BRI projects, debt financing, etc are all parts of this grand plan.

Chinese actions under President Xi are proof that China is no longer content to stick with Deng’s famous advice of, “hide our capacities and bide our time”. That being so, the moot question is, can the US go back on its leadership role of the quad, as also its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, with the change of guard at the White House? Will the declassification of the Framework, and its subsequent public release ensure continuity of the US strategy, objectives, and actions in the region?

File Picture. PM Narendra Modi greets Joe Biden, says will look forward to work closely. Image Source: economictimes.indiatimes.com

President elect Joe Biden may not completely agree or align with the assessment of China and how to counter it, as spelt out in the Framework. Sebastian Strangio has discussed the subtle nuances of language that Joe Biden has used; “instead of using the phrase ‘free and open’ to describe Washington’s intentions for the Indo-Pacific region, Biden employed the formulation ‘secure and prosperous’.” Only time will tell. India would do well to brace for the change in leadership in the US, but one thing is certain that China under an unbridled Xi is not likely to back off from being ambitious and belligerent, unless the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, including the US, can put up a united front to effectively counter this growing threat.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image Source: nature.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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