by David Parmer / RG21
In mid-2018 the most talked-about concept in geopolitics is the Indo-Pacific region. Much has, and is, being written about this section of the Earth’s surface that could be thought of as stretching from the shores of California to the coast of Africa encompassing the Pacific Ocean, the China Seas, and the Indian Ocean along the way. Enormous, diverse, and vitally important to a number of global stakeholders, the Indo-Pacific region offers both the hope for peace and the possibility of bitter and deadly conflict.
In this brief report we will examine the current situation of the Indo-Pacific in light of the current US Indo-Pacific strategy and how China is viewed in the context of this strategy. We will look at statements by US officials and policy found in three key documents, the US National Security Strategy, and the US National Defense Strategy and the Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress.
The US talks of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) and yet these policy documents and public statements by US officials point to not just a climate of healthy competition with China but to seeing China as an adversary. The “shadow policy” behind the FOIP seems to be a revival of the Cold War where the USSR and the US faced off in a nuclear stalemate for decades. Given such a climate, the question is not whether the US and China can peacefully coexist and cooperate, but rather they can avoid a conflict, no matter how local and limited, that will have tsunami-like effects on the world economy and world peace. This report ends with a look at US policy toward Taiwan vis-a-vis the Indo-Pacific strategy that could potentially create a “1914-moment” plunging the world into economic meltdown and escalating armed conflict.
- Positions, Plans, and Perceptions
“So make no mistake America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay.”(Sec. James Mattis / Shangri-La Dialogue 2018)
The first clear signal of intent to focus on the wider Indo-Pacific was first put forward by US President Donald Trump at the APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam on November 10, 2017 where he used the term “Indo-Pacific” in the first line of his remarks and said in the closing section of those remarks “Let us choose a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
To further highlight its shift in both policy and emphasis with regard to this vital area, the US, on June 30, 2018, changed the name of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis reiterated and expanded on the US position at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue June 2, 2018 in Singapore.
The contents of Secretary Mattis’ speech were unambiguous. He stated that the US looked for a free, open, and safe Indo-Pacific region (FOIP). He explained what the US would do to support the region, and look after its own interests at the same time by:
- Expanding attention on the maritime space
- Enhancing inter-operability with partners
- Strengthening the rule of law, civil society and transparent governance
- Promoting private-sector-led economic development
He went on to state:
“A central element of our strategy is the strengthening of our alliances and partnerships in terms of mutual benefit and trusted relationships.”
The areas of interest from Northeast Asia to the Korean Peninsula, to Japan and Taiwan and to Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The US interests and alliances also encompass Oceania and Australia and New Zealand. Not the least of these partners, according to Mattis in India. He concluded:
“We view the US-India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies based on a convergence of strategic interests, shared values and respect for a rules-based international order.”
- The Strategy Vis-a-vis China
While Secretary Mattis paints an optimistic and upbeat picture for the Indo-Pacific region in general, when it comes to China, it is a different story. Mattis said that if China’s policies ” promote long-term peace and prosperity,” then there is no problem. Having said that he quickly reiterates the US position / complaint:
“Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy. It promotes — what our strategy promotes, it calls into question China’s broader goals. China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of antiship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.”
Mattis sees these actions as a direct contradiction to President Xi Jinping’s promise in the Rose Garden in 2015 not to militarize in the South China Sea. The secretary’s speech was followed by a lively Q&A session where he adds depth of comment to his presentation.
Mattis stated that the US position is based on “freedom of navigation” and that such a position has great historical precedents.
At the Shangri-La meeting he refuted an assertion made by a colonel of the PLA that it was in fact the US that was raising tensions by violating China’s territorial waters. Clearly perceptions differ on this and other points.
III. The Three Key Documents and China
Secretary James Mattis’s speech at Shangri-La 2018 contained the essence of the US Indo-Pacific strategy and highlighted President Trump’s Da Nang introduction of the strategy, but underpinning it are two important documents to which Mattis made reference in his speech and in his Q&A after the speech and one that was two months later: The US National Defense Strategy, and the US National Security Strategy and Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress. Let us take a brief look at both documents and specifically their references to the People’s Republic of China.
The US National Defense Strategy
The National Defense Strategy, published by the United States Department of Defense on January 19, 2018, consists of five sections:
- Strategic Environment
- Department of Defense Objectives
- Strategic Approach
The document addresses the challenges seen to be facing the United States, and what needs to be done to deal with these challenges now and in the coming years. China looms large in the strategy. It only takes until the third paragraph of the Introduction for China to be mentioned:
“China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing the South China Sea.”
In the Strategic Environment section, the document goes on to further spotlight its emphasis on China and Chinese activities:
” China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage.”
“…it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
The document goes on to detail US modernization and relationship building to meet as what it sees as present and future challenges from China and other “competitors”.
The US National Security Strategy
This document, published in December 2017, begins with a preface by “President Donald J. Trump” that lays out his plan, platform, and vision stressing “America First. “ The strategy is divided into four pillars.
Pillar I: Protect the American People, the Homeland,and the American Way of Life
Pillar II: Promote American Prosperity
Pillar III: Preserve Peace Through Strength
Pillar IV: Advance American Influence
The Strategy in A Regional Context
As for China, in the Introduction to the US National Security Strategy, the US position is clearly laid out:
“China and Russia challenge American power, influence,
and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical
to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace
the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand
the reaches of its state-driven economic model,
and reorder the region in its favor.”
“Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others…It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenals growing and diversifying. “
“Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.”
Department of Defense Annual Report To Congress
The Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China2018 was made public on August 15, 2018. Key points in the report include the following:
- China is creating a growing regional and global presence
- China is willing to employ coercive measures both military and non-military to advance its interests
- China is likely training for bomber strikes at the US mainland
- China is using coercion and persuasion to inhibit those favoring Taiwan independence
The report also deals extensively with China’s military modernization. This modernization is taken seriously and is seen as an area of concern where China will very soon be able to challenge the US for supremacy on the world stage.
Indexes to the report deal with the question of Chinese bomber activities (This section has been widely picked up by the press after the publication of the report.) There is also a section dealing with relative PLA and Taiwan military capabilities
III. China reacts strongly to it portrayal in these documents.
If we extract the key points from the three documents, we can then see that the US views China as:
- Using predatory economics on its neighbors
- Attempting to erode American power
- Seeking Indo-Pacific regional hegemony
- Expanding its power at the expense of others
- Appropriating US innovation
- Militarizing the Indo-Pacific region
- Building a modern force to challenge the US militarily
China’s reaction is not unexpected considering how it is depicted in these documents. A good example of the Chinese viewpoint can be found in an article entitled US Indo-Pacific Strategy is Not What it Appears to Bepublished by the China Institute of International Studies, Senior Fellow Jia Xiudong comments:
“Since China is perceived as such a foe and threat to the US, then it is no surprise to see arguments that future US policies toward China should primarily aim at countering China through a strong US-anchored coalition that keeps tight grips on US allies such as Japan and Australia and brings ASEAN and India into its orbit, boosting quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India, otherwise known as the Quad.”
“As FOIP has adopted such a blunt, cutthroat zero-sum, ideological, antagonistic, and containment-oriented posture toward China, it’s safe to say that the US strategy, up to now, is inherently anti-China, no matter what shining notions it has used or euphemisms it might apply.”
As for the Annual Report to Congress published in August 2018, Chinese response was both quick and negative.
On August 8, 2018, Spokesperson Lu Kang of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China was asked about the report. The exchange went as follows:
“Q: The Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018recently released by the Pentagon played up “China’s military threat and lack of transparency” and expressed concerns over China’s strengthened national defense. What’s your comment?”
“A: China is firmly opposed to the above-mentioned US report which, in total disregard of facts, makes presumptuous and irresponsible comments on China’s national defense development and its legitimate acts to safeguard territorial sovereignty and security interests.
China stays committed to a peaceful development path and follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. It is always a builder of world peace, contributor to global development and defender of international order. China’s development of national defense aims to safeguard its national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, which is the lawful rights for a sovereign state to exercise. This is entirely legitimate and beyond reproach.”
An article on Xinhua net published on August 19, 2018 quoted spokesperson Qu Qian of China’s Ministry of National Defense as saying:
“The release of such reports by the U.S. side year after year has harmed mutual trust and is not in line with the common interests between China and the United States,”
“We ask the United States to abandon its Cold War mindset, adopt an objective and rational attitude towards China’s defense and military developments, stop issuing such irresponsible reports, and make concrete efforts to maintain the stable development of relations between the two militaries.”
China clearly rejects the picture painted of it in the three reports, seeing itself rather as a responsible player on the world stage protecting its own sovereignty and performing, when possible, missions of international aid and goodwill.
Clearly both sides are seeing a different world and a different Indo-Pacific.
- Taiwan is the Biggest Danger Area Right Now in the Indo-Pacific
While it might look like that the “freedom of navigation” question may cause the most danger in the evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific area, the real danger seems to be the schizophrenic US policy on Taiwan.
In his speech at the Shangri-La meeting laying out the FOIP, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said:
“We oppose all unilateral efforts to alter the status quo, and will continue to insist any resolution of differences accord with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait
This is a clear reiteration of the 1992 consensus and the One-China policy. Surely the decision makers in Beijing would have no problem with this statement. The Report To Congress issued in August 2018 also states:
The United States maintains a “one-China “policy that is based on the three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The United States opposes any unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by either side and does not support Taiwan independence. The United States continues to support the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues in a manner, scope, and pace acceptable to both sides.
Next, the Report to Congress clearly delineates the growing Chinese capabilities to take back the island of Taiwan by force is necessary. The report states:
China has never repudiated the use of military force and continues to develop and deploy advanced military capabilities needed for a potential military campaign.
The report lists China’s options when dealing with Taiwan by force of arms. Possible courses of action by China’s military including air, naval, army and rocket forces are spelled out.
So there seems to be no doubt in US understanding of China’s resolve and military capability when dealing with Taiwan.
1) The US supports the 1992 consensus and does not support Taiwan independence
2) The US fully understands, in detail,the capability of China’s PLA forces to blockade, strike, or invade the island of Taiwan.
However, it appears that while the US has a keen understanding of these two points, a real and potentially very dangerous policy disconnect exists on the ground.
Trump administration sends dangerous mixed signals on Taiwan and takes provocative actions
On 16 March 2018 Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act that permits and encourages high-level officials from the United States and Taiwan to make visits to the other’s country. The stated purpose is for exchange and dialogue between high-level officials.
The reason given for the passing of this legislation was that since the US recognized the PRC in 1979 and ceased to recognize the Republic of China, officials from both countries, particularly high-level officials were prohibited from visiting the other’s country.
Now the US congress and the Trump administration feel it is time to update US policy. While the US might think this signals its commitment to its support of Taiwan, it sends a different message to Beijing.
On March 17, 2018 the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lu Kang, expressed the PRC’s displeasure with the Taiwan Travel act:
“We firmly oppose the US side signing the ‘Taiwan Travel Act’ and have lodged stern representations with the US side.
“As has been pointed out many times by China, the relevant clauses of the act, though not legally binding, severely violate the one-China principle and the three joint communiqués between China and the US. The ‘Taiwan Travel Act’ sends out very wrong signals to the “pro-independence” separatist forces in Taiwan. China is strongly opposed to that. We urge the US side to correct its mistake, stop pursuing any official ties with Taiwan or improving its current relations with Taiwan in any substantive way, and handle Taiwan-related issues properly and cautiously so as to avoid causing severe damage to the China-US relations and cross-Straits peace and stability.”
It is not hard to understand the reasons for Beijing’s displeasure from their point of view. When the US recognized the People’s Republic of China, it downgraded relations with the Taiwan. This was in keeping with the three communiqués starting with President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see China looking at the Taiwan Travel Act and seeing the US as doing an about-face and beginning to re-recognize Taiwan in violation of the one-China principle.
This is especially true during the Trump administration where President Donald Trump feels that the US has been victimized for years, if not decades, by bad “deals” and that it is his job, no, his solemn duty, to renegotiate better “deals” for the US.
To add a physical underscore to this, on June 11, 2018 the US opened a new $255 million facility for the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The AIT is the substitute for an American embassy in Taiwan. China also sees this as adding fuel to the fire, and the two actions taken together could easily be seen as a re-recognitionof the Republic of China as a sovereign state, and a unilateral “re-negotiation” of the 1992 consensus.
Over the years arms sales to Taiwan have taken place under the Taiwan Relations Act much to Beijing’s annoyance, but there are now further developments being proposed. On July 3, 2018, China’s Global Times reported:
“The National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 even articulated that the Six Assurances and the Taiwan Relation Act are cornerstones of US-Taiwan ties. It also proposed to “consider the advisability and feasibility of re-establishing port of call exchange between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy,” and invited the military of Taiwan to participate in US exercises, such as the “Red Flag” exercise. The US Congress’ version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 stated that US military forces may participate in Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang military exercises and suggested: ‘consider supporting the visit of a United States hospital ship to Taiwan.’ These legislations show deepening US-Taiwan military ties.”
“The administration of US President Donald Trump intends to strengthen defense ties with Taiwan. Trump focuses on the military factor in the contest among major powers. The conservatives around him have been calling to give more prominence to Taiwan in the US Indo-Pacific strategy.”
The actions listed above and the actions proposed above seem to indicate a profound ignorance of Chinese thinking on Taiwan. And finding such thinking at the highest level is not very difficult. A quick look at President Xi Jinping’s 2014 book, The Governance of Chinaspells out simply and in detail China’s position on Taiwan.
“…the most important and most fundamental thing to do is to maintain China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although the mainland and Taiwan are yet to be reunited, they belong to one and the same China, which is an indivisible whole. “
” Forces and activities for ‘Taiwan independence’ remain a real threat to the peace of the Taiwan Straits. It is therefore incumbent upon us to oppose and contain any rhetoric or move for ‘Taiwan independence’ without any compromise.”
And here is, perhaps, President Xi’s strongest and clearest statement of the position of China and the PRC:
“All Taiwanese are our kinsmen including the descendants of those who crossed the dangerous ‘Black Ditch’ hundreds of years ago to see a new life in Taiwan, and those who migrated to Taiwan a few decades ago. We share origins and ancestors and we are one close family. To strengthen these ties has been our common aspiration, and no force on earth can sever the bond between us.”
Taiwan does seem to have a part to play in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, but a very dangerous one. There are many areas where the US and the PRC are jostling for power in the Indo-Pacific area, and differences may work themselves out, or reach a stalemate or be ignored or rendered unimportant by with the passing of time, but Taiwan is not one of them.
If we but read Mr. Xi Jinping’s words we can understand that there is a red line in China’s thinking regarding Taiwan, and a red line that China will not permit to be crossed. If the Taiwan nationalists were to be emboldened by their new part in the Indo-Pacific strategy, if they were to proclaim Taiwan independence in any way, then Beijing would act swiftly and decisively in a military manner. The cost to the PRC would be enormous in terms of blood and treasure, but once the red line is crossed, Mr. Xi will have no other course of action than to respond militarily and in force.
The real problem is that although the US fully understands China’s military power lined up across the Taiwan Strait and what would probably call for its use, it continues on the course of action moving all three parties to the non-negotiable red line with regard to Taiwan.
While US policy calls for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” US rhetoric describing China’s actions in the three documents cited suggests that it will be very difficult for the US and China to cooperate in an meaningful way to jointly promote peace and prosperity in the Indo Pacific regions.
Moreover, US actions regarding Taiwan that fail to take China’s solemn and irrevocable commitment to re-unify with Taiwan could easily precipitate a bloody conflict with no winners and only losers. Those who promote the Free and Open Indo Pacific should consider these matters very carefully and find ways to create a Free and Open Indo-Pacific acceptable in part to all parties.
Photo: US Indo-Pacific Command via flickr