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Assessing the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Current Opportunities and Future Uncertainties  

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Trans-Pacific View

Assessing the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Current Opportunities and Future Uncertainties  

While the much-anticipated report is a notable development for US Asia policy and offers much promise, there remain uncertainties about how rhetoric will translate into reality.

Assessing the US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Current Opportunities and Future Uncertainties  
Credit: DOD Photo

As anticipated, this weekend, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released its much-anticipated Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) to coincide with the debut appearance of U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the 2019 iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Asia’s premier security summit. While the IPSR certainly represents a key inflection point in the development of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept and deserves credit for hitting many of the right notes, uncertainties remain with respect to how each of the three lines of effort outlined in the document will actually be translated from rhetoric to reality in the coming years.

Since the last iteration of the SLD, where then-Defense Secretary James Mattis elaborated on the U.S. approach to a free and open Indo-Pacific, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has begun translating the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) into more concrete initiatives across what officials have articulated as three pillars – security, economics, and governance. One of the much-anticipated developments with respect to the security pillar has been the expected release of the IPSR that would clearly articulate how broader documents such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy would apply to Asia as well as more clearly lay out how the Pentagon would approach the region in the next few years.

Sure enough, after some delay and amid some changes in U.S. policy, including the departure of Mattis, the report was released as expected to coincide with Shanahan’s inaugural address at the SLD on Saturday. While the simultaneous rollout did raise some complications – whether it be the fixation among some participants about the contrast between Shanahan’s speech and the strategy itself, or confusion among others about why the U.S. government had not more clearly and explicitly explained the rationale for the timing of the release – the ISPR’s launch was nonetheless substantively significant not only as one of the key headline developments at SLD 2019, but also as another inflection point in the development of FOIP.

Seen from that longer-term, policy perspective, the IPSR itself is notable as a document in terms of what it says about where FOIP stands today as well as how the Pentagon is looking at it and plans on implementing it in the coming years. In terms of where FOIP is today, there has clearly been a refinement of aspects of it relative to where it started, with a case in point being the evolution from general definitions of “free” and “open” into four specific principles enumerated on FOIP – respect for sovereignty and independence; peaceful resolution of disputes; free, fair, and reciprocal trade; and adherence to international rules and norms. And in terms of how DOD plans on turning this from rhetoric to reality, while IPSR is framed familiarly into a series of areas about what Washington plans on doing itself as well as what it does with allies and partners, it lays out three alliterative lines of effort – preparedness; partnerships; and promoting a networked region – that begin to lay out the scaffolding for how this will be operationalized over time.

Overall, the IPSR itself hits the right notes, reflecting the incorporation of feedback both within the U.S. government as well as beyond it since FOIP has been launched. It clearly lays out Washington’s historic role in the Indo-Pacific region as well as the region’s contemporary significance as an anchor for the Pentagon’s need to focus on Asia – labeling it DOD’s “priority theater” in the opening sentence of the report. It places allies and partners at the heart of U.S. strategy, directly addressing concerns about a potential lack of inclusiveness during its inception. And even though this is technically just one U.S. agency’s perspective on FOIP, the Pentagon goes through great lengths to emphasize the whole-of-government nature of thinking on the Indo-Pacific as it has been articulating in recent years, whether it be in framing comprehensive U.S. interests in the region as a priority theater or the multifaceted nature of threats faced – laid out as China, Russia, North Korea, and transnational threats – following from other U.S. policy documents such as the Pentagon’s recent annual report on Chinese military power.

That said, given how early we are in the process, there are still uncertainties about how each of the three aspects that have been outlined will face their own challenges in being translated from rhetoric to reality. In terms of preparedness, the articulation of specific capability investments and posture changes that the DOD is undertaking to address these Indo-Pacific challenges is encouraging in that it does put more meat on the bones of U.S. regional defense strategy, with understandable limits given the sensitivity of some of the information therein. But the true tests for this lie in the coming years, both in terms of whether future U.S. budgets will actually consistently see a clear prioritization of the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater and whether the Trump administration can sustain a focus on Asia amid rising challenges elsewhere in the world. Regional doubts on this front will be additionally difficult to ease considering U.S. distractions in the Middle East during the George W. Bush years as well as the resourcing issues that plagued the Obama administration’s rebalance.

With respect to partnerships, the wide net cast in the IPSR on a range of allies and partners is promising – be it the explicit inclusion of extraregional allies such as UK, France, and Canada in the Indo-Pacific vision or the emphasis on the Pacific Islands as an area of increasing DOD attention in addition to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. But at the same time, it also belies the continued difficulties that the U.S. government has faced in practice of enlisting some countries – including some existing partners – to directly contribute to the advancement of FOIP for various reasons, whether it be their own inability or unwillingness to invest in their defense or discomfort with aspects of the Trump administration’s policies that themselves seem to undermine the principles that ought to govern a free and open Indo-Pacific, such as protectionist sentiment or skepticism about aspects of international rules and agreements. Unless these dynamics are altered, they will continue to constrain the extent to which partners will be truly and sustainably invested in FOIP, including through the very basic and specific things Shanahan listed in his SLD address such as carefully considering defense sales and providing access for contingencies.

Regarding promoting a networked region, the IPSR is encouraging in that it continues to build on a progression in U.S. defense policy where more historically rigid hub-and-spokes conceptions have gradually given way to more comprehensive and flexible networked ones that better reflect today’s complex security environment – whether one calls it a “principled security network” as laid out during the Obama administration or the “networked security architecture” in IPSR. But knitting together such a network is easier said than done. Building out alliances into broader trilaterals can be challenging, as the case of the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation demonstrates, while continuing to advance a comprehensive approach to alignments can be difficult to sustain when perceptions persist that strengthening one aspect of the network can come at the expense of another – with an example being the lingering anxieties about the effect of Asia’s Quad on ASEAN centrality, in spite of U.S. policy adjustments that have taken place recently. China’s cultivation of its own regional security partnerships also leaves open the question of how this may affect the future direction of a U.S.-led network, with a risk that states leaning closer to Beijing may choose to be more hesitant about their level of participation either out of their own will or through coercion.

None of this should detract from IPSR’s value as a key part of developing FOIP, or its merits in articulating a clear defense vision for the Indo-Pacific region. It is still early days, and we will likely see further elaborations on aspects of this as manifestations of IPSR play out through 2019 and into 2020, be it discrete engagements such as the ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX) this September or the development of relationships between Washington and regional states in priority subregions. And some of these challenges may be overcome with time if FOIP sustains over the next few years and its inclusiveness becomes clearer in practice and as we get greater clarity on the future direction of U.S. policy after the November 2020 presidential elections. But at least for now, the future uncertainties that remain for IPSR mean that whatever the current opportunities that IPSR offers for U.S. policy, turning this from rhetoric to reality will require summoning every bit of the “grit” that Shanahan referenced in his SLD remarks that the United States possesses to realize FOIP.