In China’s view, its military expansion in the South China Sea and increased presence in the Indian Ocean are benign, so the United States and its allies shouldn’t do anything to respond. On the economic side, the Chinese believe America and its partners have no capacity to compete with Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar One Belt One Road Initiative, so they aren’t much concerned with U.S. complaints about it.
Of course, neither the United States nor its Asian allies see Chinese military and economic aggression as benign. But there’s no consensus about what to do about it. And there’s no common understanding about how the Trump administration plans to back up its words with action.
At the conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out their different views of what “Indo-Pacific” means. Both focused on building an open and free system that upholds the rights of countries and the rule of law, and promotes prosperity. But Modi was clear in saying India is not interested in alliances aimed at containing China.
“India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate,” Modi said. “And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be.”
Mattis pointed to the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which call out China as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor,” respectively. He protested China’s military aggression in the South China Sea and suggested its economic policy was predatory. He also said China’s rise should be welcomed if Beijing is willing to play by the rules.
Mattis promised to implement Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy by reinvigorating American investment, working to strengthen the rule of law, increasing attention to the maritime space and deepening alliances. Many conference attendees from partner countries and the United States told me that Mattis’s speech sounded reassuring, but there is still a huge gap between U.S. pledges and what they are seeing on the ground.
“While the region welcomes the aspirations of the Indo-Pacific strategy as a sign of broader strategy and regional engagement, the challenge right now is that it’s just aspirational — a set of goals with no real strategy, policy enumeration or implantation plan, let alone resourcing and budget,” said one congressional aide who attended the Dialogue.
The Trump team is threatening several regional allies with tariffs or sanctions. Trump’s on-again, off-again, on-again diplomacy with North Korea has allies worried the American president isn’t properly prepared to head into a delicate and hugely consequential negotiation.
Also, there hasn’t been a real shift of U.S. military focus on the region. On his way to Singapore, Mattis stopped in Hawaii and presided over the renaming of Pacific Command, which will now be called U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The actual responsibilities of the command didn’t change, just the name. Trump frequently talks about withdrawing U.S. troops from the region. Mattis disinvited China from a multilateral naval exercise, but China’s military takeover of large swaths of the South China Sea seems permanent.
After withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trump administration has done almost nothing to show the region it has a proactive trade policy. The Trump administration criticizes China’s One Belt One Road initiative but hasn’t presented developing countries in the region a viable alternative to Chinese funds. Without a real trade and economic strategy, America’s overall strategic leadership isn’t credible.
The Trump administration risks making the same mistake that the Obama administration made with its “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia — raising expectations and then under-delivering. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who attended the conference, told me that the United States needs a regional strategy that spans multiple administrations.
“When we’re up against ‘China, Inc.’ who thinks in terms of millennia, we cannot limit ourselves to thinking in fiscal quarters, or four- to eight-year administrations,” he said. “We need a plan for the long haul to ensure that our nation maintains its leadership and strategic role in the Indo-Pacific region that covers defense, diplomacy and economics.”
Trump administration officials say the details of its Asia strategy are coming soon. That doesn’t reassure the countries of the region, which are already doubting America’s credibility and reliability. The Chinese certainly aren’t waiting for us to figure it out.