Monday, February 14, 2022

Summary Thoughts on the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States

From lay observers to professionals in the national security arena, for the last year most have been waiting to see what our Indo-Pacific Strategy would be.

Words matter, especially in national strategy where those words drive funding, effort, and the attentions of industry and the national security apparatus.

For reasons best known to those who made the decision, it was delivered last Friday, buried in a general Friday news dump before the Super Bowl weekend and Russia on the brink of invading Ukraine.

You would be hard pressed to pick a worse time, but it is what it is. 

The timing does not take away our responsibility to read and comment, and this week we are going to spend the next two days doing just that.

To start out we have returning guest poster, our friend Bryan McGrath. I'll follow with my thoughts tomorrow.

You can get your own copy of the strategy at this link if you don't have it yet.

As always, we are grateful to have Bryan guest posting. On this topic especially, he's the right guy to give it a once over.

Bryan, over to you. 

 Non-Specific/General Comments

  • These thoughts were rather quickly put down in reaction to an important document that could be lost amid other world events threatening to take center stage. As a Seapower advocate, attentive readers will note my obvious biases. 
  • This is strategy at the “grand” level, in that it attempts to align and apply U.S. national power within itself, and with friends and allies. This needs to be remembered, even as I criticize it for its vagueness and generality. It is a stab at laying out a comprehensive strategy for competing with China, particularized to this region. 
  • One can reasonably be expected to look at how this was framed and what it is considered to be important when anticipating what a Biden National Security Strategy will look like. And that worries me. 
  • That “Bolster(ing) Indo-Pacific Security” is the fourth of five objectives of this strategy, is unfortunate, and it sends an unfortunate message of prioritization (or lack of, mainly) of building up our military power and encouraging our friends and allies likewise. 
  • There is a great deal of this document upon which I do not comment. This is because whatever is not commented upon is unobjectionable or not important enough to bring up. 
  • The document was released late on a Friday afternoon when there is war boiling on front burner in Europe. I realize it was timed to the Quad meeting, but I wonder if putting this aside for a bit might not have been a better move. 


Note: Bold text references are direct quotations from the document, with page numbers noted. 

(4) Since then, administrations of both political parties have shared a commitment to the region. The George W. Bush Administration understood Asia’s growing importance and engaged closely with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan, and India. The Obama Administration significantly accelerated American prioritization of Asia, investing new diplomatic, economic, and military resources there. And the Trump Administration also recognized the Indo-Pacific as the world’s center of gravity.

This is excellent. Pointing to continuity over time is worthwhile.

(5) The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.

This is useful and important, as there is sometimes a tendency to look at the PLA-Navy buildup and think that it is all about Taiwan or Western Pacific hegemony. It isn’t. China is building a global Navy and will operate it as such. We will rub up against them across the seven seas in the years and decades to come.

(5) From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior. In the process, the PRC is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific. 

Excellent shorthand description of what this strategy is designed to contest. 

(5) Our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.

There is laudable humility in this statement, and it leverages our “killer app”—which is our network of friends and allies around the world. 


(7) For centuries, the United States and much of the world have viewed Asia too narrowly—as an arena of geopolitical competition. 

Too narrowly? As opposed to what? Geopolitical competition is the natural order of things, and we ought to recognize that fact, not lament it. 

1. Advance a Free and Open Pacific

(8) through investments in democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society. The United States will bolster freedom of information and expression and combat foreign interference by supporting investigative journalism, promoting media literacy and pluralistic and independent media, and increasing collaboration to address threats from information manipulation.

This is good stuff, and it gets at the heart of this being a strategy written on the “grand” level rather than something derivative. It also is a group of activities and functions that in our republic, are not terribly well-synchronized. We don’t have a place where the making of grand strategy fits nicely, or a competent process for birthing it.

(8) work closely with like-minded partners to ensure that the region remains open and accessible and that the region’s seas and skies are governed and used according to international law.

I realize that I am being a bit of a noodge and a pedant, but the overwhelming majority of the region’s (and the world’s) seas are not only ungoverned, but they are also ungovernable. By design, at least, seas are ungovernable if “free seas” are what you actually desire. I think I get what the authors are aiming at here, but the language is inartful.

2. Build Connections Within and Beyond the Region

(9) We will pursue this through a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions.

This is an interesting and strategically significant statement. It occurs to me that a single strong coalition would be the best approach to the reason but given several factors (fear of China, historical enmity, alignment preferences), that is unlikely to occur. So, this “latticework” of coalitions takes the world as it is and doubles down on our main strategic advantage (more and better friends).  

(9) We will continue to strengthen Quad cooperation on global health, climate change, critical and emerging technology, infrastructure, cyber, education, and clean energy, as we work together and with other partners toward a free and open Indo-Pacific.

All very much the purview of grand strategy. Somewhat disheartening to have read several references already to climate change and not a single word about military power or capacity. 

3. Drive Indo-Pacific Prosperity

(11) The prosperity of everyday Americans is linked to the Indo-Pacific.

Yes, and that prosperity is underwritten by forward deployed and stationed naval forces who work closely with friends and allies to maintain the freedom of the seas. Would have LOVED to see that tie made clear within this document. But it isn’t. We are either supposed to already know it, or it isn’t important. 

(11) The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need for a recovery that promotes broad-based economic growth. That requires investments to encourage innovation, strengthen economic competitiveness, produce good-paying jobs, rebuild supply chains, and expand economic opportunities for middle-class families: 1.5 billion people in the Indo-Pacific will join the global middle class in this decade.

As I read this, I thought “holy smokes, the Biden team is trying to shoehorn its domestic agenda into this”.  And then I read:

(11) Through our Build Back Better World initiative with G7 partners

Silly me for not knowing that they’d already done so. 

4. Bolster Indo-Pacific Security

(12) Integrated deterrence will be the cornerstone of our approach. We will more tightly integrate our efforts across warfighting domains and the spectrum of conflict to ensure that the United States, alongside our allies and partners, can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form or domain. We will drive initiatives that reinforce deterrence and counter coercion, such as opposing efforts to alter territorial boundaries or undermine the rights of sovereign nations at sea.

Integrated deterrence is posited here as if it is well-understood and a clear term that means something to the national security community. This is not the case. What is befuddling is that its use here, in a section that is very much (or should be) devoted to military matters, makes it sound as if “integrated deterrence” is a creature of the Department of Defense. And while it has generally been DoD types who use the phrase to explain why the rest of us should be happy with insufficient resources being applied to defense, the Department already had a lexicon to describe how “integrated deterrence” works within the department. That word is “Jointness”. Integrated deterrence—at least to the extent that I understand what it is—means applying national power in a more integrated manner to the question of deterrence. And because of this clever application of national power, the Biden Team believes that we could and should more efficiently apply the military instrument to conventional deterrence. By efficiently I mean “economically”. Because the defense portion of the discretionary budget is a fat target for Building Back Better funds, getting defense spending under control is and has been a fundamental tenet of the Biden Team’s approach. There is a whiff of smokescreen in the whole concept of integrated deterrence, in that it provides cover for diminishing the hard power contribution to deterrence while building up other elements of national power that are more popular with domestic political constituencies.

(13)  build the defense capacity of partners in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I am unable to find even a passing reference anywhere in this document to building our own defense capacity. This omission is the greatest weakness of this document.

(13) expanding U.S. Coast Guard presence,

I remain hostile to the Coast Guard performing naval functions forward, as it legitimizes Chinese blurring of lines in its own maritime power by playing the same game. I realize that this is a minority view, but it has implications in both how we approach Chinese maritime power and how we resource that approach. 


Drive New Resources to the Indo-Pacific

(15) Building shared capacity requires the United States to make new regional investments. We will open new embassies and consulates, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and increase our strength in existing ones, intensifying our climate, health, security, and development work. We will expand U.S. Coast Guard presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands, with a focus on advising, training, deployment, and capacity-building. We will refocus security assistance on the Indo-Pacific, including to build maritime capacity and maritime-domain awareness. We will also expand the role of people-to-people exchange, including the Peace Corps. Within the U.S. government, we will ensure we have the necessary capacity and expertise to meet the region’s challenges. Throughout, we will work with Congress to ensure that our policy and resourcing have the bipartisan backing necessary to support our strong and steady regional role.

The failure to mention properly resourcing hard power and strengthening our conventional deterrence posture is breath-taking.

Reinforce Deterrence

(15) developing new capabilities, concepts of operation, military activities, defense industrial initiatives, and a more resilient force posture. 

But not capacity. Not lethality. Words matter.

Support India’s Continued Rise and Regional Leadership

(16) We will continue to build a strategic partnership in which the United States and India work together and through regional groupings to promote stability in South Asia; collaborate in new domains, such as health, space, and cyber space; deepen our economic and technology cooperation; and contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific. We recognize that India is a like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, active in and connected to Southeast Asia, a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development.

Absolutely. Bravo.

Deliver on the Quad

(16) We will strengthen the Quad as a premier regional grouping and ensure it delivers on issues that matter to the Indo-Pacific.

We need to do more to emphasize military cooperation and exercises as a part of the everyday business of “The Quad.”

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group. These views are his and do not represent any client.

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