Trans-Pacific View

The Biggest Threat to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy? Washington Itself.

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Trans-Pacific View

The Biggest Threat to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy? Washington Itself.

The strategy’s success depends on continued forgiveness from allies and partners.

The Biggest Threat to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy? Washington Itself.
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

It is an open secret that U.S. implementation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy has been rocky at best. Nagging questions about the strategy’s purpose, whether it can be sustained, if it even constitutes a strategy, and why allies and partners apparently must choose between Washington and Beijing hang a dark cloud over U.S. plans.

Nevertheless, U.S. allies and partners have generally supported Washington’s core security objectives of keeping the Indo-Pacific “free and open” from Chinese coercion. Their bottom line is that the maintenance of a rules-based order and international norms of behavior are critical to mitigating the challenges posed by Beijing’s growing economic and military power in the region and globally. These include the staunchest of allies in Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and, recently, South Korea, as well as those who are quieter on the benefits of the strategy but have likewise endorsed U.S. goals, such as India and Vietnam. American allies and partners that have strenuously sought to avoid picking the United States or China, namely the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, all seem to at least acknowledge the importance of maintaining great power balance in contested regions such as the South China Sea.

Unfortunately for Washington, the greater threat to the success of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is the apparent divergence between the letter and spirit of the strategy, on the one hand, and President Donald Trump’s statements on the other. But even in these cases, allies and partners to date have been quite forgiving because they seem to be willing to distinguish between the two. Following the president’s trip to the G-20 summit hosted by Japan in late June, for example, a senior Japanese foreign affairs official noted, “We should not react to a tweet by the president each time… if it’s their official position, we need to deal with it, but the president says various things.”

Moreover, allies and partners, at least so far, seem to have prevented the numerous trade wars against many of them from negatively impacting enhancements in security cooperation with the United States. For instance, New Delhi last month responded to U.S. import tariffs by circumscribing its retaliation to raising export tariffs on 28 different U.S. products. Yet, as if operating in a completely parallel universe, U.S.-India bilateral defense and security exchanges have improved significantly. After last year’s first-ever “two-plus-two dialogue,” held between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Indian counterparts, New Delhi and Washington inked a military information sharing agreement and operationalized a military logistics agreement. In early May, the United States and India also conducted a joint navy exercise along with Japanese and Filipino forces in the South China Sea.

Even the most harmful U.S. decision in 2017 to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which left several key allies and partners in the lurch, has not appreciably impacted their security relationships with Washington. The Indo-Pacific Strategy has probably benefited from the decision by former TPP members, namely Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, to pick up the pieces of TPP and establish their own trade bloc, known as the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Washington has simultaneously ramped up trade pressure bilaterally on U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, and early in June, the president was reportedly considering the implementation of trade tariffs against Australia. Once again, these actions do not appear to have adversely impacted security cooperation in the region. However, on his way to the G-20 in late June, Trump criticized another increasingly valuable Indo-Pacific partner, Vietnam, stating it was “almost the single worst abuser of everybody” on trade. It is too early to tell whether his comments will impact growing U.S.-Vietnam security relations, though Hanoi has decided to buy more American products.

To be sure, the president has occasionally weighed in counterproductively on select security aspects of the Indo-Pacific Strategy as well. For example, while on his way to the G-20 in Tokyo, Trump argued that the U.S.-Japan alliance was imbalanced. Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to unilaterally suspend large U.S.-South Korea military exercises meant to deter North Korea in 2018 has resulted in regional consternation (though the exercises are apparently back on now), particularly among U.S. allies, but among partners as well. It is difficult for them to trust U.S. security commitments to the region.

But implementation of the strategy is not all bad. Indeed, the Trump administration has done important work in several key areas and continues to push hard in many others. Notably, Washington has significantly boosted U.S.-Taiwan defense ties, reiterated U.S. security alliance commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty to the Philippines in the South China Sea, and has conducted several multinational exercises while keeping up its own pressure using freedom of navigation operations there.

Implementation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is nevertheless hamstrung by too much uncertainty surrounding the secretary of defense position. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was clearly a steady hand on Asia, and he was involved in the crafting the National Defense Strategy, which ultimately served as the underlying analysis for the Indo-Pacific Strategy. But Mattis is long gone and his acting successor, Patrick Shanahan, who said that “China, China, China” would remain top priorities of the Pentagon, was only in the job for a short while. Recently confirmed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has testified that the National Defense Strategy remains his top priority, but he neglected to mention the Indo-Pacific Strategy. With so much change at the top, one has to wonder whether the Indo-Pacific Strategy is still relevant these days.

In addition, the critical implementer position of assistant secretary of state for East Asia Pacific took longer than normal to confirm. Assistant Secretary David Stilwell only recently started his job — two and a half years into the Trump administration. My conversations with Asian interlocutors clearly reflect an angst about how long it took to fill this key role, suggesting Washington does not actually consider the Indo-Pacific a priority. Fortunately, there are other steady hands within the administration on Asia who have served for quite some time now, including Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council Matt Pottinger and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy has certainly faced many challenges. However, the strategy on the whole has proven thus far successful, probably because U.S. allies and partners have nowhere better to turn in order to balance China’s growing military and economic power. In this vein, it is useful to revisit then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ statement in 2010 after WikiLeaks had put intelligence sources at risk and exposed secret American critiques of friends. With concerns swirling over whether the United States could be relied upon to keep secrets in the future, Gates calmly observed:

The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments—some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

Indo-Pacific countries similarly need Washington and are likely to look past U.S. missteps so long as it supports their national security strategies. This is not to say that Washington has a never-ending blank check, because it almost certainly does not, but the U.S. is yet to reach the real tipping point in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, when partners decide they can no longer ignore  the inconsistencies raised here and compartmentalize the negative effects. That day may eventually arrive, however, if Washington demonstrates that it can no longer lead in the region due to displacement by China, its own shortcomings, or a combination of both.

Derek Grossman is an expert in Indo-Pacific security affairs and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles. He formerly served as the daily intelligence briefer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.