US accuses China of hegemonic ambitions

American interests in the Indian Ocean Region


(Continued from yesterday)

The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of the US Defence Department titled, ‘Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region’ released last Saturday accuses China of seeking to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations. The tenor of the report leaves no doubt that US policy in the Indo-Pacific region is driven primarily by perceptions of what China may or may not be up to. The report further states as follows:

China’s economic, political, and military rise is one of the defining elements of the 21st century. Today, the Indo-Pacific increasingly is confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests.

Perhaps no country has benefited more from the free and open regional and international system than China, which has witnessed the rise of hundreds of millions from poverty to growing prosperity and security. Yet while the Chinese people aspire to free markets, justice, and the rule of law, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.

China has continued to militarize the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands and employing paramilitary forces in maritime disputes vis-à-vis other claimants. In the air, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased patrols around and near Taiwan using bomber, fighter, and surveillance aircraft to signal Taiwan. China additionally employs non-military tools coercively, including economic tools, during periods of political tensions with countries that China accuses of harming its national interests.

As China continues its economic and military ascendance, it seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long-term. China is investing in a broad range of military programs and weapons, including those designed to improve power projection; modernize its nuclear forces; and conduct increasingly complex operations in domains such as cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare operations. China is also developing a wide array of anti-access/area denial capabilities, which could be used to prevent countries from operating in areas near China’s periphery, including the maritime and air domains that are open to use by all countries.

In 2018, China’s placement of anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands. In the East China Sea, China patrols near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands with maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft. These actions endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. Such activities are inconsistent with the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Simultaneously, China is engaged in a campaign of low-level coercion to assert control of disputed spaces in the region, particularly in the maritime domain. China is using a steady progression of small, incremental steps in the "gray zone" between peaceful relations and overt hostilities to secure its aims, while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict. Such activities can involve the coordination of multiple tools, including: political warfare, disinformation, and economic leverage.

Chinese investments

PLA modernization is also strengthening its ability to operate farther from China’s borders. China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to comply with its agenda.

While investment often brings benefits for recipient countries, including the United States, some of China’s investments result in negative economic effects or costs to host country sovereignty. Chinese investment and project financing that bypasses regular market mechanisms results in lower standards and reduced opportunities for local companies and workers, and can result in significant debt accumulation. One-sided and opaque deals are inconsistent with the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and are causing concern in the region. For example, in 2018, Bangladesh was forced to ban one of China’s major state firms for attempted bribery, and in the same year, Maldives’ finance minister stated that China was building infrastructure projects in the country at significantly inflated prices compared to what was previously agreed. Furthermore, a Chinese state-owned enterprise purchased operational control of Hambantota Port for 99 years, taking advantage of Sri Lanka’s need for cash when its government faced daunting external debt repayment obligations.

The United States does not oppose China’s investment activities as long as they respect sovereignty and the rule of law, use responsible financing practices, and operate in a transparent and economically sustainable manner. The United States, however, has serious concerns with China’s potential to convert unsustainable debt burdens of recipient countries into strategic and military access, including by taking possession of sovereign assets as collateral.

Through our military-to-military engagements, the Department of Defense will continue to encourage China to engage in behaviors that maintain peace and stability in the region and that support – rather than undermine – the rules-based international order. We will not accept policies or actions that threaten to undermine this order, which has benefited all countries in the region, including China. The United States is prepared to support China’s choices to the extent that China promotes long-term peace and prosperity for all in the Indo-Pacific, and we remain open to cooperate where our interests align.

The Indo-Pacific region continues to experience a myriad of security challenges from a range of transnational threats, including: terrorism; illicit arms; drug, human, and wildlife trafficking; and piracy, as well as dangerous pathogens, weapons proliferation, and natural disasters. Multiple terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), operate in countries throughout the region. The heavily-traveled Indo-Pacific sea lanes are targets for pirates seeking to steal goods or hold ships and crews for ransom.

Another issue of concern is weak and illiberal governance in countries. Governments that are not responsive to the will of their people are more susceptible to malign external influence. For example, democratic backsliding in Cambodia has taken place since 2017, when the ruling party banned independent media and dissolved the main opposition party. Additionally, we remain concerned about reports that China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its coast, a development that would challenge regional security and signal a clear shift in Cambodia’s foreign policy orientation. In Burma, the lack of a robust democracy has set conditions for human rights atrocities committed by Burmese security forces in northern Rakhine State since August 2017, and has created regional instability, with more than one million Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh.

String of strategic partnerships

The United States is encouraged by positive indicators within South and Southeast Asia that democratic institutions are on an upward trajectory and steadily improving transparency, responsibility, and democratic values. These indicators include freedom of the press, civilian control of the military, and free and fair elections in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, each of which experienced autocratic rule in the past.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are also on a positive trajectory. In Sri Lanka, after 25 years of conflict, the government has transitioned to a constitutional, multiparty republic with a freely- elected President and Parliament. The political system was challenged with a constitutional dispute in late 2018. Ultimately, however, all parties respected the Supreme Court ruling that returned democratic processes and norms, and the military remained uninvolved throughout the dispute.

America’s military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia is eroding and, if inadequately addressed, it will undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion. The challenges we face in the Indo-Pacific extend beyond what any single country can address alone. The Department seeks to cooperate with like-minded allies and partners to address common challenges.

The National Defense Strategy implicitly acknowledges the most stressing potential scenarios will occur along our competitors’ peripheries. If our competitors decide to advance their interests through force, they are likely to enjoy a local military advantage at the onset of conflict. In a fait accompli scenario, competitors would seek to employ their capabilities quickly to achieve limited objectives and forestall a response from the United States, and its allies and partners. The National Defense Strategy directs the Department to posture ready, combat - credible forces forward – alongside allies and partners – and, if necessary, to fight and win. This approach intentionally presents competitors with a dilemma by ensuring they cannot quickly, cheaply, or easily advance their aims through military force. In the region, the US currently has more than 2,000 aircraft; 200 ships and submarines; and more than 370,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and civilians. To achieve our strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific, we seek to evolve our posture and balance key capabilities across South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania to have a more dynamic and distributed presence and access locations across the region. In order to overcome the tyranny of distance, posture that supports and enables inter- and intra theater logistics must be flexible and resilient, and the pre-positioning of equipment is critical. Within South Asia, we are working to operationalize our Major Defense Partnership with India, while pursuing emerging partnerships with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal.


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