The latest U.S. Defense Department report on the Indo-Pacific has China and Russia firmly in its sights. China is described as a “Revisionist Power”, its actions in the South China Sea are labelled as “low level coercion”; China is accused of theft for economic advantage and its deals are described as “one-sided and opaque.”
The section on Russia is headlined “Revitalized Malign Anchor”, Moscow is seeking to re-establish itself in the Indo-Pacific by taking advantage of U.S.-China tensions. The report details its liaison with China, the expansion of the Russian Navy and adds a laundry list of other actions.
But more than anything else, this report is about the U.S. and what it is doing to counter its enemies and reassure friends and allies. While acknowledging the “tyranny of distance”, the U.S. details how it intends to meet the challenge militarily. There should be “flexible and resilient” intra-theatre logistics and pre-positioning of equipment in the context of America’s military capabilities in South Asia, South east Asia and Oceania, says the report.
The report clearly written with an eye on the trade war and China’s muscle flexing in littoral waters, urges the development of expeditionary capabilities, “dynamic basing of maritime and air forces”, building unique intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and the use of special forces for unconventional warfare.
All this forms part of the Defense Department’s future posture in the Indo-Pacific. These include “Multi-Domain Task Forces” that will enable the U.S., its friends in the region and partners to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains. This concept is expected to be tested in collaboration with the forces of the Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia in the coming weeks.
More interesting is the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept, which is intended for application in contested environments (Taiwan Straits/South China Sea?). The concept is being spearheaded by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and will deny adversaries freedom of action, control key maritime terrain and will be carried out at a tempo which would complicate the adversary’s ability to target these forces.
The report beats a familiar tune when it calls for “increasing inter-operability … ensuring our military hardware and software are able to integrate more easily with those of our closest allies and partners”. It calls for cutting edge U.S. military equipment to be offered to allies and partners and professional U.S. military education to Indo-Pacific armed forces.
Divided into geographical sections, India figures in the “Expanding Partnerships in the Indian Ocean Region” but the report offers no fresh insight into how the Defense Department sees this country. Although India has bought $16 bn of U.S. military hardware since 2008 and a raft of agreements ranging from defence trade to intelligence sharing and military exercises have been implemented, it cannot exist separate from the impact Trump is having on the larger political and economic relationship.
U.S. pressures on India cover trade and the withdrawal of GSP benefits to embargoes on the purchase of Iranian oil. There are periodic warnings against India buying Russian weapons and also exhortations about the security risks associated with Chinese telecom equipment such as Huawei’s. Understandably, this being a Defense Department report, there was only that far it could go, but the obstacles in the way of better India-U.S. ties are many and will require diplomatic and political will and some deft navigation.