OPED by Amb. Gurjit Singh
The 15th November Xi-Biden summit around APEC showed that the approaches that China and the US have to each other vary significantly. While the US would like to emphasize cooperation and competition rather than conflict, the Chinese realize that confronting the US gets them to engage.
The central confrontation between China and the US is in the Indo-Pacific, particularly over Taiwan. As it approaches its elections in 2024, will the US lower the temperature in the Indo-Pacific and reduce confrontation with China, giving them a kind of a free pass?
China is not confronting the US directly in Ukraine or West Asia, where US attention has been engaged somewhat to the detriment of the Indo-Pacific.
As 2023 comes to a close, it is worth assessing whether countries, particularly the US, are losing interest in the Indo-Pacific to keep it a safe place for international trade and transit and challenge China’s aggressive intent and unilateral efforts to browbeat those it can. By the time the Quad summit meets in January 2024, the significance of the responses to this question will be more clearly known.
Five significant moves related to various partners acting cohesively are noteworthy.
First, the US intends to deploy land-based missiles in the Indo-Pacific by 2024. These will likely include the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) and the Tomahawk cruise missile, which range between 350 and 2500 kilometers.
They can be fired from the mid-range capability system, the Typhon weapon system. They are expected to be stealthier and more undetected than naval or air deployments, which are also open to easier Chinese interdiction and attack.
This is a consequence of missile deployments being allowed following the end of the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty in 2019. This prohibited land-based missiles with ranges of between 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Not being a part of that treaty, China had expanded and, therefore, needed countering. While Guam is expected to be the most likely location, their rotational deployment in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines cannot be ruled out.
Secondly, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin recently discussed high-tech military cooperation with Australia and the UK, showing more significant signs of playing a role in the Indo-Pacific.
A US-UK-Australia agreement to enhance technology and information sharing is intended to address global security challenges better and contribute to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
The three countries met at the Silicon Valley Defence Innovation Unit headquarters on December 1. They will expand military cooperation under the AUKUS Partnership, initially focused on eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The US announced that it would assist Australia to produce guided missiles under a joint production agreement by 2025. These efforts are to increase responses to continuing concerns with China’s increasing defense expenditure and military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
The new agreement will also establish exercises that use surface and underwater maritime drones and improve data collection by their sonar buoys, which can detect underwater activity. The expanded use of AI on P-8A surveillance aircraft to process such information rapidly is expected to improve the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the AUKUS. New radar sites in space will augment these.
Third is the continuing French interest. France is the most ambitious and active among the EU countries in the Indo-Pacific. On December 5, Australia and France set out a new path for interoperability through reciprocal access and increased joint activities.
They will allow France to use facilities in Australia and Australia to use facilities in France bases in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean to counter China. After Australia junked the French submarine contract in favor of the US, the France-Australia coolness and established AUKUS has been set to rest.
Australia unveiled the Multimission Autonomous Network Transporter (Armed) (MANTA) drone mothership and multirole catamaran by shipbuilder Austal in November. The “MANTA” elaborates “Expeditionary Fast Transport” (EPF) in service with the US Navy and the “High-Speed Vessel” (HSV) built for Oman.
Fourth is the most interesting of these developments: Japan’s decision to augment its well-known official development assistance (ODA) focused on the socio-economic development of countries in the Global South by creating a new official security assistance (OSA) framework. This will provide equipment and infrastructure assistance based on the security requirements of its partner countries.
The OSA idea was approved in the national security strategy of December 2022. The primary recipient under this is the Philippines, which is facing myriad Chinese intrusions and obstructions in accessing its reefs and shoals.
The Philippines will use yen 600 million under a grant to obtain coastal surveillance radars from Japan. Bangladesh, a new Japanese favorite, will be the second recipient of OSA when it receives patrol boats under a grant of 575 million yen (about US$4 million).
Vietnam, Malaysia, and Fiji in the Indo-Pacific are other targets of Japanese grants under the OSA. At the other end of the Indo-Pacific, Djibouti, where Japan maintains a base, is also under consideration for OSA grants. Japan has allocated a budget of Yen 22 billion in fiscal year 2023. It is now using development aid for security purposes beyond HADR for the first time
Fifth, with Japan, the US announced amendments to US force positions in Japan, including establishing a Marine Littoral Regiment in Okinawa. This is the Marines’ advanced combat unit. The revisions make “US posture in Japan more resilient, mobile, more distributed and more lethal,” said Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs.
Japan and the US agreed to increase exercises and sought enhancement of Japan’s counterstrike capabilities.
Austin spent ten days in the Indo-Pacific in November, visiting India, South Korea, and Indonesia, where he also attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting ADMM plus.
Rand analyst David Grossman, writing for the Foreign Policy, says that America’s Indo-Pacific alliances are astonishingly strong. His basis is that the Biden administration has done better in the Indo-Pacific than the Trump administration.
The problem is, how do countries in the region perceive the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific without dragging them into other conflicts in the world, like Ukraine or Taiwan, which do not directly affect most of them?
At the same time, the Foreign Policy article does not address the anxiety among Indo-Pacific partners that the US could cut another deal with the Chinese. The demise of Kissinger brings back those thoughts.
The US Department of Defence says that 2023 was the most transformative for the Department of Defence in the Indo-Pacific despite the Ukraine and West Asia crisis. DOD believes that they have kept pace with the requirements of the defense of the Indo-Pacific and are working closely with partners. The truth, as always, lies in between.
Undoubtedly, the US, particularly Blinken and Lloyd Austin, have visited the region more frequently. They have engaged India, ASEAN, and other partners more robustly. But suspicions remain that countries of the area must do more for themselves and in partnership without necessarily waiting for the US.
The US’ attention, as it gets closer to the elections and chances of the return of a Republican Administration, means that countries of the region must be prepared to deal with the Indo-Pacific and its challenges with more self-reliance.