The US has finally completed the legislative process for the Indo-Pacific. First, Washington removed ‘Asia-Pacific’ from its strategic glossary and internalized the term ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’ through legislation of the “Strengthening Security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Act”. The Bill was approved by the Congress in 2017. Second, the US’ National Security Strategy (NSS) was released in December 2017; and in May 2018, the US Pacific Command was renamed as the US Indo-Pacific Command thus giving equal importance to the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. It signaled US’ engagements with allies and partners in both sea spaces to support its efforts to keep open and free sea lanes. Third, in December 2018, Washington enacted the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA).
The ARIA defines the Indo-Pacific region as ‘from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States’ and positions it among the top priorities of the US government. The Act sets out a policy framework to assure Asian countries of its commitment to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region with strong foundations of rules-based international order. The Act authorizes the US government to appropriate annually US$ 1.5 billion for the next five years to support military, diplomatic and economic engagement and assistance to the countries of the Indo-Pacific.
Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who sponsored the Bill, has labeled ARIA a “whole-of-government, long-term strategy in Asia that advances American national security interests, promotes American businesses and creates jobs through trade opportunities, and projects American values of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
ARIA is inclusive and identifies a number of alliance partners, friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific region and does not exclude any nation. It is upbeat on US’ relations with India, Japan, Korea and ASEAN, but identifies China, North Korea and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as countries that are challenging the ‘core tenets of the United States-backed international system’. Further, China is seen as a geopolitical competitor, economic challenger and a country whose military modernization can potentially upset the balance of power. Beijing has been accused of undermining a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region but the Act encourages China to play a constructive role in world affairs by demonstrating consistent respect for the rule of law and international norms.
The ARIA acknowledges the role of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) among United States, Australia, India, and Japan to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to promote (a) a rules-based order; (b) respect for international law; and (c) a free and open Indo-Pacific; and that QSD is intended to augment, rather than to replace, current mechanisms.
There is specific reference to the South China Sea and the Act makes it known that the US Navy will continue to conduct regular freedom of navigation, and over flight operations in the Indo-Pacific region in accordance with applicable international law; and promote genuine multilateral negotiations to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea, in accordance with applicable international law.
The Act calls upon the US President to craft a diplomatic strategy to work with allies and partners, and conduct joint maritime training and freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific region. This is to be achieved by enhancing maritime capability and maritime domain awareness to ensure security and free flow of commerce and respond to asymmetric threats and challenge. Interestingly, the Act urges ASEAN member states to ‘develop a common approach to reaffirm the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling with respect to the case between the Republic of the Philippines and the People's Republic of China’.
It is not surprising to see reference to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in ARIA. It was perhaps President Donald Trump’s biggest gamble to extract from President Kim Jong-Un an assurance for peaceful denuclearization in the Korean peninsula including the elimination of the threat posed by its ballistic missile program.
The Act calls upon the US President to allow transfers of defense articles to Taiwan and these should be ‘tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People's Republic of China’ as also support Taiwan’ efforts to ‘develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities, as appropriate, including mobile, survivable, and cost-effective capabilities, into its military forces.’
As far as India is concerned, ARIA ‘recognizes the vital role of the strategic partnership between the United States and India in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region’. It calls for the strengthening and broadening of security ties between Washington and New Delhi through institutionalizing defense trade and technology sharing including license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies at the same level as US’ closest allies and partners.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.