The US is switching up a gear in the Indo-Pacific


Emanuele Scimia |

In its annual report to Congress on China’s military strength, released last Thursday, the US Department of Defence emphasised the increasing Chinese capability to project power in forward areas. On top of concerns that Chinese bombers might attack American and allied installations in the Pacific, the Pentagon highlighted the growing ability of the Chinese navy to operate on the high seas.

According to the report, the Chinese continued to conduct naval operations in western and southern Pacific waters and in the Indian Ocean in 2017, underlining their interest in safeguarding sea lines of communication beyond the South China Sea and the first island chain.

But while the American military presence and its network of allies and partners are strong and consolidated on the western rim of the Pacific Ocean, the American defence apparatus in the Indian Ocean and southern Pacific regions has weaknesses that the Chinese could exploit. The Pentagon took note of the Chinese navy’s “continued” deployment of submarines in South Asian waters, as well as its intelligence collection operation in the Coral Sea during a joint American-Australian naval exercise last year.

In the National Defence Authorisation Act for the financial year 2019, which US President Donald Trump signed into law on August 13, authorising military spending of US$717 billion, Congress stressed that “long-term strategic competition with China is a principal priority for the United States”.

American lawmakers see a connection between China’s overseas infrastructure and development projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative for Eurasian connectivity, and its defence and strategy objectives. Criticism of Beijing’s maritime expansion has become the new geopolitical mantra in Washington, with the Trump administration and Congress taking aim at China’s use of investments and concessional loans to align recipient nations in the Indo-Pacific region with Chinese interests.

The new US defence act called for a “redesignation, expansion, and extension” of Washington’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. It means South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will also be entitled to US military assistance and training under the scheme – in South Asia, the US already has a logistics agreement with India that allows their respective armed forces to use each other’s military facilities, including naval bases.

The US announced last week that it would give Sri Lanka US$39 million to bolster maritime security, part of a US$300 million effort to support a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific area. Washington is clearly trying to weaken Beijing’s strategic grip on the Indian Ocean island.

Sri Lanka is often cited as a victim of China’s “debt trap” diplomacy. Last year, Colombo leased the Hambantota port to Beijing for 99 years after it struggled to repay outstanding Chinese infrastructure loans.

Bangladesh has close relations with China, too. For instance, Dhaka acquired 23 Chinese-built Hongdu K-8W intermediate training jets in June. What’s more, the South Asian nation is a key link in the belt and road project. Like the members of ASEAN before them, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka now have to walk a fine line if they are to benefit from Beijing and Washington’s simultaneous courtships.

China’s military activism is also growing in the South Pacific, but US strategic projection there is filtered through Australia and New Zealand, its proxies in the area. Meg Taylor, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, said in July: “Geostrategic competition between major world powers has once again made our region a place of renewed interest and strategic importance.”

The grouping is expected to revise existing security arrangements among its member states in Nauru next month to address emerging challenges. It should be noted that China has been the second-largest aid donor in the South Pacific since 2011, with US$1.3 billion worth of donations and concessionary loans, according to the Australia-based Lowy Institute.

Last week, Tonga’s prime minister, Akilisi Pohiva, called on other indebted South Pacific island nations to join his government in demanding debt relief from China, warning that the Chinese could seize their assets.

He backed down from his plan later, reportedly after the Chinese government complained. Despite his about-face, it is evident that his and a number of other impoverished tiny South Pacific nations have debt problems. Should they hand over their deepwater ports to Beijing in return for debt cancellation, there would be security implications for Washington.

Ultimately, the US’ evolving strategy for the Indo-Pacific appears aimed at preventing China from setting up logistics and intelligence sites beyond its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which the Chinese navy needs to support possible power projection across a region ranging from East Africa to Hawaii.

Courtesy: South China Morning Post