Trump's Indo-Pacific plan is not new at all

Trump's Indo-Pacific plan is not new at all

The name change from US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command is hotly debated, but is just a continuation of ex-president Obama's 'Asia rebalance'. (Reuters file photo)
The name change from US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command is hotly debated, but is just a continuation of ex-president Obama's 'Asia rebalance'. (Reuters file photo)

The United States' changing the name of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command has become a hotly debated topic after the conclusion of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore earlier this month.

The term "Indo-Pacific", according to some experts, explicitly reflects the growing significance of India and US interests in the Indian Ocean.

Well-respected scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak sees the US Indo-Pacific Command as a "gravitational shift to South Asia" and reflects the growing role of India for the US to balance against China.

For other experts, the new US Indo-Pacific strategy matches India's Look East policy adopted since 1992 and Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Some people are optimistic that the new US Indo-Pacific Command will reinvigorate the quadrilateral military exercise -- a joint military cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia and India also known as the Quad.

While US President Donald Trump's new Indo-Pacific strategy has drawn mixed analysis among experts and scholars, it is nothing new, but a continuation of former president Barack Obama's US rebalance to Asia by other name.

First, it is true that the Indo-Pacific term was not explicitly addressed during the Obama administration, yet the US strategic interests in the Indian Ocean were never overlooked by it.

According to the Quadrennial Defense Review 2010 (QDR), a legislatively mandated review of defence strategy and priorities by the US Department of Defence, securing sea lanes of communication for freedom of navigation, global commerce and international energy security have always been interests of the US in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Moreover, growing US strategic interests in the Indian Ocean were once again explicated in QDR 2014 stating: "We will continue efforts to help stabilise Central and Southwest Asia and deepen our engagement in the Indian Ocean region to bolster our rebalance to Asia."

Clearly, security and peace in the Indian Ocean and the stability of South Asia have been of major interest to the US in previous administrations.

Equally important, although the term "Indo-Pacific" did not appear in the US National Security Strategy during the Obama administration, the significance of the Indian Ocean was already implicitly included in the then US Asia strategy.

In October 2011, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton's influential article, America's Pacific Century, published in October 2011 in Foreign Policy, dictated the shift in US foreign policy to Asia. Part of the article states that: "The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans -- the Pacific and the Indian -- that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy."

Geographically, the Asia-Pacific, as Ms Clinton pointed out, does include India. A new trilateral dialogue framework between the US, Japan and India was initiated since the early days of the Obama administration and was finally kicked off in 2015 by John Kerry, a former secretary of state during Mr Obama's second term.

Second, the operational range of the US Pacific Command already extended over the Western Pacific and a large part of the Indian Ocean. According to the Area of Responsibility map, the US Pacific Command was responsible for a huge geopolitical integration of the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single strategic theatre stretching from the Western half of the Pacific Ocean to the Western coast of India and islands off the East Coast of Africa.

Several days after President Trump introduced his new Indo-Pacific strategy, Area of Responsibility map of the US Indo-Pacific Command and some other key information, including the structural command name and social media such as Twitter were still being used under the old name of the US Pacific Command.

More importantly, the US Pacific Command had played critical roles in several major military operations since the end of World War WII. Under its direct command, the US 7th Fleet, a key carrier strike group permanently based in Yokusuka, Japan, for instance, played a critical role during the both first and second Gulf Wars in the early 1990s and 2000s, respectively.

The US Pacific Command's military deployment and operational readiness were once again globally witnessed in 2004 after Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia were hit by a deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The command managed to fully deploy its task forces as part of a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation within five days. Within eight weeks, at least 8,500 tonnes of aid supplies were transported by its air force alone.

Third, Mr Trump's new Indo-Pacific strategy highlighted exactly the same US strategic regional partnership and cooperation as president Obama's.

According to US Secretary of Defence James N Mattis, in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the US Indo-Pacific strategy focuses on strengthening cooperation with India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the roles of the 10 Asean member states to promote maritime security assuring a "free and open Indo-Pacific".

Unfortunately, none of these is new, given the elements of Mr Obama's rebalance to Asia policy. According to Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state and key architect of the US rebalance to Asia strategy, the policy not only strengthened cooperation between the US and its security allies but also deepened US regional strategic partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Fourth, the sustainability of Mr Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy remains questionable, given the lack of coherent supporting strategies.

In order to protect, promote and advance the new strategy, Mr Trump needs more than military cooperation, but economic cooperation and pro-active multilateral engagement.

During the Obama administration, the US rebalance to Asia policy was supported by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and multilateral regional engagements, such as the US participation in the Asean-led East Asia Summit (EAS).

Unfortunately, Mr Trump signed away the TPP and skipped the EAS last year. Had the US joined the TPP, the free trade agreement representing up to 40% of the world's GDP, it would have played a more critical leading role in the global economy and the regional and global political leadership.

Mr Trump's decision to reject the TPP, according Stephen M Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, is "foolish" and "is likely to be his most consequential foreign-policy blunder".

Although Mr Trump later on expressed interest in rejoining the TPP, that was just a moment that vindicated his strategic miscalculation and misperception of the TPP.

In short, President Trump's new US Indo-Pacific strategy is not a really a new strategy, but a continuation of Mr Obama's US rebalance to Asia by other name.

The US Indo-Pacific Command is technically old wine in a new bottle. The lack of clear supporting strategies and Mr Trump's unpredictable foreign policies, however, have brought the sustainability of the US Indo-Pacific strategy into questions.

Lack of credible resourcing raised doubt over Mr Obama's Rebalancing strategy, and Mr Trump has not succeeded in this respect either.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, Mr Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy is "an attention-grabbing idea that will dissipate like ocean foam".

Sek Sophal is a researcher at Democracy Promotion Centre, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Beppu, Japan and a writer for the Bangkok Post.

Sek Sophal

Researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre

Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Beppu, Japan. He is also a contributor to The Bangkok Post

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