Commentary / World

America's Indo-Pacific strategy won't scare China

by Hal Brands

Bloomberg

The Trump administration has taken the next step toward fleshing out its approach to China, by releasing the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. The 64-page paper deals with a number of regional security issues, but it focuses primarily on how to preserve a congenial climate as an ambitious, autocratic China asserts its growing influence.

Those who are looking for a fresh, definitive answer to this question are going to be disappointed. The main thrusts of the document are familiar; they date back to the Barack Obama years and even before. Where the Indo-Pacific report is more interesting is in highlighting — intentionally and unintentionally — the key challenges the United States has yet to overcome.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially a follow-on to the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, two documents that put the threat from revisionist great powers — especially China — at the center of U.S. policy. The report describes the Indo-Pacific as America’s “priority theater,” because that region is likely to be the engine of economic growth and the epicenter of geopolitical rivalry in the 21st century. To shore up an eroding U.S. position and prevent China from achieving hegemony, the Defense Department will pursue three interlocking initiatives.

First, the Pentagon will enhance U.S. preparedness to defeat potential Chinese aggression, by developing new capabilities and operational concepts to offset Beijing’s growing military might. Second, it will expand and deepen U.S. partnerships in the region, to form a broader regional coalition against malign Chinese behavior. And it will improve upon the existing system of bilateral U.S. alliances and partnerships by networking these relationships into a larger, more cohesive whole.

By doing all this, America can preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a region in which nations can trade freely, maintain their sovereignty, and avoid being dominated by Beijing.

This strategy, like the previous strategy documents, thus takes a sharp rhetorical line toward China. It weaves in some of the new initiatives the Trump administration has taken, such as reviving the “Quad” (an informal partnership linking the U.S., Japan, Australia and India) and encouraging European allies to increase their naval activities. The report also breaks with precedent by describing Taiwan as a country — a designation sure to infuriate Beijing, which views it as a wayward province.

These innovations aside, however, much of the report seems ripped from the Obama years. The ideas of countering China’s military buildup while also modernizing, expanding and integrating U.S. security relationships were at the heart of Obama’s China policy. Indeed, the broad descriptions of U.S. strategy could have been taken directly from then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s speeches on China in the last two years of Obama’s presidency.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this: The basic strategic requirements of deterring Beijing and bolstering the U.S. position in the region haven’t changed much since 2015-2016, even if China’s challenge has become more severe. The most revealing aspect of the Indo-Pacific strategy, then, is the way in which the document highlights — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — the most daunting problems the U.S. faces in meeting that Chinese challenge.

The first is the question of how to prevent the fait accompli. China still cannot defeat the U.S. in a long war if America brings all of its power to bear. But Beijing could use the advantages of surprise and geography to quickly grab key territory — Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, for instance — and then force Washington to decide whether to pay the high, perhaps prohibitive, price of liberation. The Indo-Pacific report is admirably candid in discussing this problem. Unfortunately, the Defense Department is only beginning to solve it.

David Ochmanek of the RAND Corporation has argued that defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require damaging or destroying more than 300 Chinese naval vessels in the first 72 hours. That, in turn, would require vast stocks of long-range munitions, given that China’s anti-ship missiles may deter Washington from sending U.S. aircraft carriers into the fight. Yet despite budgeting funds for an additional 400 extended-range air-to-surface missiles, the Pentagon is still in the early stages of amassing the capabilities and developing the warfighting concepts that would allow it to defeat a fait accompli strategy. This looms as the critical military challenge in the years ahead.

The report also raises more questions than it answers regarding a second issue: “gray-zone” aggression. In the South China Sea, China has used coercion short of war — island-building, paramilitary forces asserting control over contested areas — to shift the facts on the ground incrementally, without triggering a U.S. military response. Over the past decade, China has thereby strengthened its position on the installment plan.

The Obama administration always struggled to counter these actions; it was only episodically successful in deterring China from eating away at the sovereignty of its neighbors one bite at a time. Here, too, the Indo-Pacific strategy clearly identifies the problem, yet it offers few new ideas on how the U.S. and its allies can frustrate the gray-zone tactics China has used to gain the upper hand in the South China Sea.

Third, the Indo-Pacific strategy unintentionally underscores the difficulty of deepening America’s security relationships amid profound upheaval in Washington’s approach to the world.

Most of America’s friends in the Indo-Pacific are pleased that Trump has been willing to introduce some friction into the relationship with China. But they are simultaneously alarmed by his waffling on U.S. defense commitments and penchant for using economic coercion against America’s own allies. They also worry that Trump will ultimately cut a bilateral deal with China, leaving them exposed. The Pentagon is right that it will take a grand coalition to keep China in check, but the president’s actions are making that coalition harder to forge.

Fourth, although the report says the right things about the need for a whole-of-government strategy, in doing so it simply highlights the gaps in American statecraft. By passing the BUILD Act, which focuses on catalyzing private investment in infrastructure projects overseas, Congress put some $60 billion toward countering China’s economic influence in the Indo-Pacific. Yet there remains an economic void in America’s strategy toward the region, thanks to Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership back in 2017. If anything, the administration has weakened America’s economic position vis-a-vis China by pursuing tariff wars against U.S. allies.

Finally, the Indo-Pacific strategy underlines the awkward matter of whether that region truly is America’s priority theater. Because no matter what the strategy documents say, the Trump administration just can’t seem to maintain strategic focus.

Right now, the U.S. risks being consumed by a deepening diplomatic and military crisis in the Persian Gulf, one caused partially — although far from entirely — by Trump’s efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. The administration is saying one thing about its geopolitical priorities, yet it is continually doing another thing in terms of the fights it picks.

The release of the Indo-Pacific strategy, then, should not be confused with the achievement of an integrated, effective strategy for maintaining a “free and open” region. But it does at least illustrate the main obstacles — some of them self-created — that such a strategy will have to surmount.

Bloomberg columnist Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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