As secretary of state in the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo was a strong supporter of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Photo: AFP / Eric Baradat

On January 12, in a revelation reminiscent of the Pentagon Papers, the outgoing Trump administration declassified and released its 2018 national-security document detailing the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.

Both the Pentagon Papers and this latest document were released with the intention of influencing government policy. The unauthorized release of the former was intended to reverse American policy in Vietnam, while the unusually early release of the Indo-Pacific strategy document appeared to be designed to constrain the policy options of the incoming Joe Biden administration.

They both revealed that the US government had systematically lied to the American people and to Congress regarding its Asia policy. Ironically, both big lies – some 50 years apart – were cover for the same US objective: to contain China.

The drafting of the recent document was probably overseen by the then national security adviser, H R McMaster, and, in particular, the National Security Council’s director for Asia at the time, Matt Pottinger. The document was prepared to meet a congressional requirement to submit a declassified China strategy to lawmakers.

The strategy was supposedly designed to survive many challenges and administrations. But it is unlikely to survive even the Biden administration’s probably more conciliatory, incentive-laced, multilateral approach.

However, make no mistake. The ultimate objective will remain the same: maintenance of US primacy in Asia by constraining and containing China.

“Containment” in this context means obstructing China’s rise. The strategy is based on the theory that the US needs a weak China to continue its hegemony in Asia. It is to be accomplished by “establishing military, economic and diplomatic ties with countries adjacent to China’s borders, frustrating China’s own attempt at alliance building and economic partnerships, and the utilization of tariffs, sanctions and lawfare.”

These are all clearly elements of the present US policy – and have been for some time. But for years, American foreign-policy officials and echoing pundits claimed the US was not trying to contain China and that it wanted China “to succeed and prosper.”

This and similar sentiments were the consistent rhetoric of Barack Obama’s administration, including from Obama himself. Anyone having the temerity to suggest otherwise – including China itself – was berated by US officials and empathetic pundits.

One of chief promoters of this strategy, Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo, declared that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy was a vision for the region “of free, fair, and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, good governance, and freedom of the seas.” It excluded no country and was “open to all who wish to prosper in a free and open future.”

But to the contrary, the newly released document reveals that the US intent was to “devise and implement a defense strategy capable of … denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict; defending the first island chain nations including Taiwan; and dominating all domains outside the first island chain.”

In other words, the US intends to contain China in order to maintain its hegemony in the region, including, in particular, in the East China and South China Seas. This explains the more aggressive behavior there by the US in the Trump era.

The duplicity did not stop with overall US intent. It also involved false statements to friends and partners. At the August 2019 ASEAN-US summit, Pompeo solemnly declared, “Look, we don’t ever ask any Indo-Pacific nations to choose between countries. Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero sum exercise.” That has now also been revealed to be false.

For example, the document says the strategy has as a goal making the US India’s “preferred partner on security issues.” The US would try to achieve this goal by pushing and pulling India away from its non-aligned status – in China’s eyes if not those of the world.

The document also sees Southeast Asia as an accomplice in Washington’s China-containment policy. It urges the US to “promote and reinforce Southeast Asia and ASEAN’s central role in the region’s security architecture, and encourage it to speak with one voice on key issues.”

That may sound benign, but it is not when it is a key component of the United States’ China-containment strategy. From this document it is clear that US policy toward Southeast Asia is contingent on the US relationship with China.

Even worse than the lies, the policy was apparently formulated based on cultural bias rather than objective logic. In May 2019, the State Department’s director of policy and planning at the time, Kiron Skinner, said US competition with China would be especially bitter because “it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

She also said the US struggle with China was uniquely “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.”

These inaccurate slips of the tongue (the US opponent in World War II, Japan, was certainly a different civilization and ideology) revealed that some in the Trump administration believed the US and China are engaged in a Huntington-like “clash of civilizations.” Indeed, she argued that Trump’s policies had led scholars of international relations “to go back to first principles” and defend “America’s role in the world.”

Skinner said her job was “to flesh out Trump’s hunches and instincts” and provide the intellectual architecture for the “Trump Doctrine.” She claimed that the National Security Strategy developed by McMaster was passé and that “we have evolved since then.”

In her view, China was a “fundamental threat” and there was no hope for cooperation – only a “struggle for domination and thus survival.” Such thinking only plays into the worst scenarios of China’s hardliners and thus could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So now the US has revealed its true intentions toward China and that some observers of US-China relations were right all along. Of course it could be argued that this dichotomy between public and private positions was due to a Trump policy change from the previous administration. Even if that were so, that would only underscore the conclusion that the word of the US is worthless. It will only last until the next election – if then.

To many, this was just another episode of American duplicity, hypocrisy and inconsistency. Its future avowed foreign-policy positions will be considered in this light.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.