With stepped-up plan, US takes aim at China

Zhao Minghao

The Pentagon released its first Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) on June 1. On the same day, US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan explained the main points of this report when he spoke at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore which was held between May 31 and June 2. Amid an escalating trade conflict between China and the US, US President Donald Trump’s administration is determined to invest more resources in implementing the Indo-Pacific Strategy, especially in the field of security, which has not only alarmed Beijing, but also unsettled most countries in the region.

The Pentagon’s description of China in the IPSR is a cliché – accusing China of being a “revisionist power” and of “seeking Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long term.” Such arbitrary and malicious accusations have become part of the new US narrative on China.

Yet the report also reveals some disturbing trends in US policy on China.

First, the Pentagon is intensively preparing for a war against China. US hawks believe that their country should have no fear of military conflict with China in the South China Sea. In addition, tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan are getting increasingly fierce. While the US takes the island of Taiwan as a critical part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, China is prepared to go to war to safeguard its sovereignty.

The Indo-Pacific region is seen as a “priority theater” by both the Pentagon and senior officials of the US Indo-Pacific Command. They are quite blunt about the possibility of a potential armed conflict with China, emphasizing that the US is not afraid of the cost of violent conflicts. The IPSR explicitly mentions that “we will not accept policies or actions that threaten or undermine the rules-based international order – an order that benefits all nations… Achieving this vision requires combining a more lethal Joint Force with a more robust constellation of allies and partners… the Joint Force will prioritize investments that ensure lethality against high-end adversaries.”

Second, Washington is trying to build closer ties with Australia, India, Japan – a set of countries, including the US, known as the Quad, as well as other nations in the region, so as to create a united front to contain China.

However, other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, South Korea and Singapore, have always had doubts about the Quad.

In the IPSR, the Pentagon advocated “Promotion of a Networked Region” and pledged to increase military and security assistance to countries in the region through the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. The act is a major bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Trump on December 31, 2018. According to the IPSR, “this legislation enshrines a generational whole-of-government policy framework that demonstrates US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

This reveals that the US wishes to establish a three-ring structure in the Indo-Pacific region.

The first ring is the treaty alliance among the US, Japan, Australia and other countries.

The second ring consists of the new security partnerships between the US, Indonesia and Vietnam. The third ring includes the UK, France, Canada and other countries. With this, Washington hopes to promote greater involvement of Western powers in Indo-Pacific affairs.

Third, the Pentagon and other US departments are jointly promoting the enhancement of economic security, which is one of the most prominent challenges facing China-US relations in the coming years. “Our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific recognizes the linkages between economics, governance, and security that are part of the competitive landscape throughout the region, and that economic security is national security,” the report stated.

The Trump administration is concerned that the global supply chain is too dependent on China and is meanwhile trying to prevent Beijing from leveraging its economic power to bolster China’s security. In order to thwart China’s economic cooperation with other countries, the US will further use the pretext of so-called national security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Pentagon believes that ports built by Chinese companies in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and other countries will become Chinese naval bases in the future, even though the governments of all these countries have categorically denied such conjectures.

In the meantime, Washington is militarizing the region. For instance, the US and Australia are developing a joint naval base on Manus Island.

The Pacific islands are not capable of resisting Washington’s muscle flexing, even though they need Chinese investments.

At the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a thought-provoking speech on China-US relations. He stressed that the world “has to adjust to a larger role for China. Countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening,” adding it was impossible to “create a NATO or Warsaw Pact equivalent with a hard line drawn through Asia or drawn down the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” Obviously, countries in the region do not want to see China and the US engaged in fierce confrontation.

Striving to have his official position changed to US defense secretary from an acting role, Shanahan might need to act tough against China in order to gain the support of US lawmakers at congressional hearings. Yet he realizes the significance of establishing a good working relationship with the Chinese defense minister.

The constructive dialogue between Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe and Shanahan during the Shangri-La Dialogue is a right step to prevent the conflict between the two sides from turning into a disaster.