At Shangri-La Dialogue on 01 June 2019 US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is expected to unveil details of the Pentagon’s new Indo-Pacific strategy which may be aimed at limiting China’s growing clout in the region. In his five months as acting secretary, Shanahan has tried to focus on implementing a new National Defense Strategy that shifts away from fighting extremist groups to what he calls “great power” competition with China and Russia. However, much of his energy has been invested in juggling with other issues like Iranian threats, North Korean missile launches, the on-going war in Afghanistan, the battle against Islamic State militants and a struggle to garner billions of dollars for Trump’s wall on the southern border.
The week long Asia trip from 30 May 2019 provides Shanahan an opportunity to engage with major stake holders in Indo-Pacific on the side-lines of Shangri-La Summit besides engaging with allies like Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. In Seoul he will witness the joint military exercises between the two nations and will arrive in Japan for the last stop of his tour on 03 June 2019 where he is expected to seek support for the United States’ Indo-Asia Pacific strategy.
The presentation by Shanahan comes after a fruitful four-day trip (26 -30 May 2019) to Japan by President Donald Trump where he was able to sell 105 F-35 stealth aircraft to Japan. The visit by the President to the Japanese helicopter carrier that is being converted to handle F-35B short-take-off-and-landing jet fighters is seen by many analysts as a measure to help Japan reassert its role as a leading security player and pose a new challenge to China’s People’s Liberation Army, which has extended its influence in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years. Incidentally, the US has also sold 40 F-35As to South Korea and also hopes that Seoul will buy another 20 of the fighters. The Australian government has also budgeted US$17 billion for 72 of the jets.
Prior to visit of the US President, the Indo-Pacific command ran a six-day exercise, Pacific Vanguard, near the US island of Guam. The aim of the exercise was to showcase that Washington looks at its allies to help counter China’s military might in the region. The statement by Vice Admiral Phillip Sawyer, the commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, sums up the issue when he said, “Pacific Vanguard joins forces from four, like-minded maritime nations (Japan, South Korea, Australia and US) that provide security throughout the Indo-Pacific”. In this month alone US ships have conducted drills with French, Japanese and Australian ships in the Bay of Bengal, and held separate exercises with a Japanese helicopter carrier and warships from India and the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.
Washington and Tokyo have long been wary of Beijing’s military expansion; with Japan announcing a new foreign policy strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in 2016 to promote the “rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade”. The renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as well as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in December 2018 shows the importance been accorded by Washington to the Indo-Pacific. Australia Foreign Policy White Paper 2017 provides Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision which is centred on security, openness and prosperity.
Washington’s concerns are reflected in this year’s version of an annual congressional report that warned: “Over the coming decades, [Chinese leaders] are focused on realising a powerful and prosperous China that is equipped with a ‘world-class’ military, securing China’s status as a great power with the aim of emerging as the pre-eminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.” The presentation is likely to draw lot of issues which have been highlighted in the Pentagon Report on ‘Chinese Military Power’ released in May 2019. T Randall G. Schriver, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs during his briefing at Pentagon Press in May 2019 has been critical of Chinese modernisation of missile forces and stealth aircraft like J-20, maritime capability, influence operations across multi domain and predatory methods to steal technologies though cyber-theft and targeted investment in foreign companies with crucial technologies and its exploitation of access that Chinese nationals may have to U.S. technology.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 had provided the Indian vision of the Indo-Pacific which clearly puts ASEAN as the centre with extremities extending to the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of America. Given the huge expanse that the Indian definition of Indo-Pacific covered, prompted the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to create Indo-Pacific wing in April 2019. According to Dr Harsh Pant of ORF, “Act East Policy remains the bedrock of India’s Indo-Pacific policy” however, it leaves larger part of India’s western sea-board unaddressed. Also, there are differences between India’s vision and the U.S.’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific. With the growing geo-political tensions between US and China over trade and technology war and South China Sea India will have to create a comprehensive security narrative and align its diplomatic effort and defence capabilities to guard India’s interest in the region. Defence forces should also work towards risk reduction and operational safety measures to prevent unwanted and unnecessary escalation.