US President Donald Trump and Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan attend a cabinet meeting at the White House in July. Photo: AFP

It appears that the administration of US President Donald Trump is finally putting some meat on the bones of its Asia policy. According to news reports, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan will unveil the United States’ new “Indo-Pacific strategy” at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), which will be held in Singapore beginning this Friday.

A story by USNI News quoted the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, Randall Schriver, as stating at a roundtable meeting in Malaysia in April that “our National Defense Strategy [NDS] and National Security Strategy [NSS] identify the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater, and I think Secretary Shanahan will talk about that at Shangri-La and what it means to be a priority theater.”

Fleshing out the ‘Indo-Pacific dream’

Well, it’s about time. More than two years in, and the Trump administration has been pretty sparse in laying out its approach toward the all-important Asia-Pacific region. Before these recent statements, the best we knew about Trump’s strategy toward the region was his enunciation of the so-called “Indo-Pacific dream,” made at the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

During that speech, Trump laid out the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). It took a while, however, before his administration said much more about it, but lately some details have been becoming clear. According to an article in The Diplomat by Prashanth Parameswaran, Trump’s FIOP strategy has “three pillars – security, economics, and governance.” In particular, this means respect for “democracy, human rights, good governance, and civil society.”

This is still pretty thin gruel, and Parameswaran points out that a lot more needs to be done to make this a real strategy. For these reasons, Shanahan’s speech at the upcoming SLD will be closely scrutinized and dissected.

Going beyond the National Defense Strategy

The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified four countries as threats to the United States: Iran, China, Russia and North Korea. Two of these countries are in the Indo-Pacific region, and one – Russia – touches on it (Russia has possessions in the North Pacific, as well as a notable military presence, but its Pacific Fleet is a shadow of its former self).

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remain a headache for Washington, but it is China that most challenges the United States over the long term. China’s military capacities continue to advance and expand, and its posture in the South China Sea and other parts of the far western Pacific has become increasingly aggressive.

Both the NDS and NSS articulate a regional strategy of deep engagement with Asia. In particular, they warned that China was seeking to displace the United States and in so doing establish a Sino-centric order in the region through economic inducements, information operations and military coercion. These reports were highly critical of Chinese actions in the South China Sea (SCS), particularly regarding Beijing’s growing military presence in and around the Spratly Islands, which “endangers the free flow of maritime trade, threatens the sovereignty of other nations and undermines regional stability.”

Schriver speaks

Assistant Secretary Schriver is the point man on the new US Indo-Pacific strategy, so his words should be closely watched as a diviner of Shanahan’s likely speech at the SLD. In a talk given last August to the American Enterprise Institute, Shriver described the FIOP as not being directed at “any particular country, but there should be little doubt that much of the Chinese behavior is demonstrating objectives that run counter to our objectives for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

“By free,” he argued, “we mean nations will be free from coercion and able to protect their sovereignty.”

He expanded on these comments at the April roundtable in Malaysia. “It’s our intent to make sure that no one country can change international law or the status of the South China Sea,” he said. And specifically regarding China’s illegal island-building campaign in the SCS and subsequent militarization of these artificial islands, Schriver stated that while “there’s not necessarily an expectation that they roll back the land reclamation … we hope that they will not deploy additional military systems and in fact remove the military systems on these outposts,”

Backing up America’s tough talk

US actions are already putting these words into action. The US Navy (USN) has upped its game when it comes to conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. It undertook at least eight regional FONOPs in 2018, sailing to within 12 nautical miles of reefs and islands claimed by China as sovereign territory. This month alone, the USN has conducted two FONOPs in the SCS, one near the Spratly Islands and the other near the Scarborough Shoal, seized by China in 2012.

In addition, despite all of Trump’s “America First” posturing, Washington is stepping up security cooperation with its Indo-Pacific allies. The US military has expanded its annual Cobra Gold exercises with Thailand, nearly doubling the number of US military personnel involved. At the same time, the United States “disinvited” China from its 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises.

The United States is also encouraging its allies and partners to increase their own FONOPs in the Western Pacific. In April, a French warship transited the Taiwan Strait, greatly upsetting Beijing.

Through its Maritime Security Initiative, the United States is providing free-of-charge ScanEagle-2 unmanned aerial vehicles to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, the USN currently operates P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft out of the Philippines, and in the future it might temporarily base these planes in Malaysia or Singapore.

It would appear that the Trump administration is finally recognizing the critical centrality of the Indo-Pacific. More than most speeches, therefore, we should pay particular attention to Shanahan’s remarks in Singapore this week.

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