[Hwang’s China and the World] Europe will not detract from US focus on Indo-Pacific
Published : Mar 30, 2022 - 13:26
Updated : Mar 30, 2022 - 13:27

Dr. David M. Finkelstein is vice president and director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

The White House in February announced its Indo-Pacific strategy in what seems to be its most inclusive and comprehensive report yet. The report makes no doubt that China’s presence is of utmost importance when it comes to the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, which was initiated in the Trump administration.

In the report, the US looks to seek ways to contain China’s rise, but also maintain a somewhat amicable and cooperative relationship with Beijing. The Indo-Pacific strategy initially which was largely focused on the military aspect, however, is steadily extending to other domains to include politics, economy, security, and culture. The US’ intentions and will are quite obvious, although the measures and approaches are still uncertain. While the US is constantly stressing the significance of the Indo-Pacific strategy, nevertheless, we still need time to see where it stands in the US’ overall security policies.

We cannot easily judge at this point whether the situations in Europe, including the war in Ukraine, would have an influence over the strategy or not, and if so, whether it would be a positive or negative one. Above all, the Indo-Pacific strategy is the US’ version of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while the Belt and Road Initiative is China’s Indo-Pacific strategy. We are witnessing the spears of the Belt and Road Initiative against the shields of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Under such complicated and suddenly changing global security circumstances, we need to understand the US’ strategic thoughts and military strategies since the US is the one who is leading the changes and responding to it. In this sense, this week’s discourse we invited one of the representative Chinese military experts from the US, Dr. David M. Finkelstein, and had a deep discussion regarding the Indo-Pacific strategy. He is vice president and director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit research institute in Arlington, Virginia. He is also author and co-editor of several Chinese military-related books. The views expressed herein are strictly his own, and do not reflect those of CNA or any of its sponsors.

Hwang: While Europe is in conflict with Russia, do you see the Indo-Pacific Strategy having any kind of momentum?

Finkelstein: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine has radically shifted the discussion of security affairs and national defense among the nations of Europe, between Europe and the United States, and beyond in some cases, for obvious reasons. At the same time, my own view is that events in Europe will not detract from Washington’s long-term focus on the Indo-Pacific region. There are a host of traditional and nontraditional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific that are neglected at the peril of the US and its allies and partners in the region. There is no question that the long-term economic security of the US resides here in Asia.

So, while the current crisis in Europe has the headlines, I have every confidence that the US will continue to push forward key initiatives under this Indo-Pacific strategy. One data point to underscore this assertion is that during public Congressional testimony on March 9, in the midst of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs told the House Armed Services Committee that the Indo-Pacific region remains the priority theater for the Department of Defense.

Hwang: The US and China are competing in earnest, and the military area is not an exception. Previously, the US has mainly focused on preventing terrorism and a “Two-War Strategy,” and now moved on to a “One-War Strategy” that concentrates on the strong powers such as China and Russia. Do you see this trend continuing?

Finkelstein: One of the remarkable but likely underappreciated aspects of the history of the US armed forces is that since the late 19th century and early 20th century the American military has had to constantly adapt — and not just to changing technologies. It has had to adapt to ever-changing security threats, to shifting geographic theaters of operations, to different types of conflicts and modes of war, different adversaries, and different allies and partners. Thinking back in time, the US military has not had the luxury of being a one-theater warfighting military since World War I — and even in that case the US armed forces were still deployed globally on other missions, not just in Europe. And of course, at times, the US armed forces have had to prosecute operations in multiple theaters of conflict simultaneously. This is a long way of offering that the historical record would strongly suggest that the US military will adjust its focus and capabilities as conditions change. But I feel compelled to point out that the US military has maintained significant military forces in the Indo-Pacific region since the late 19th century, and that is something I believe will remain a constant given enduring American interests in the region.

Hwang: Given that the Indo-Pacific strategy report seems to excessively concern China, it is expected that the US is going for the “value” alliance, to pressure China by concerting all its allies and friendly countries.

Finkelstein: The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the White House in March 2021 was quite direct in articulating the administration’s concerns about how the People’s Republic of China is pursuing its national interests, and the implications for the US and other nations. It is not surprising, therefore, that the new Indo-Pacific strategy devotes discussion to the PRC. The strategy is, after all, a document focused on the Asia-Pacific region and the PRC is a major power. At the same time, the strategy is not just about the PRC. The strategy also speaks to the larger interests the US has in the region and discusses how the current administration will pursue those interests. On the PRC, what stood out to me in the document was this statement: “Our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates …” To me, this statement was a significant articulation of US policy on two accounts. First, it can read as a message of assurance to Beijing that the US has no desire or intentions to change its political system or attempt to “split and Westernize China” — as the Chinese Communist Party often asserts — or undermine the CCP as a matter of official policy. This is an important message given the rhetoric of the last US administration. But second, the statement and the strategy also make clear that a key approach the US will take in dealing with PRC policies that are deemed inimical to US, ally, and partner interests will be to create a diplomatic, economic and security and environment in the region that will either mitigate problematic PRC policies or behaviors or, alternately, encourage it to go in different more palatable directions. This can only be accomplished in concert with others; hence the strategy emphasizes working with many other actors in the region and beyond who share the same views.

Hwang: It seems the Indo-Pacific strategy previously focused on the military, however, has expanded its boundary to diplomacy, economy, security, and others. For instance, it has suggested Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for the action plan. How feasible would this be?

Finkelstein: I think it is very important that you are pointing out that the current strategy is not just about military affairs. Just to remind, in the previous administration it was the Pentagon that published an Asia-specific strategy: The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (June 2019). Not surprisingly, the focus of that document was on the military and security dimensions of the region and how the Defense Department intended to deal with them. As I mentioned earlier, the current document was issued by the White House. Consequently, the range of issues covered is broader than just military affairs. Reading through the current document it is clear that the intention of the White House was to make this strategy for the Indo-Pacific be a “whole of government” strategy. This makes eminent sense given the myriad and diverse interests the US has in the region.

It is worth underscoring that the current Indo-Pacific strategy lists the need to “drive Indo-Pacific prosperity” as one of the five key objectives of US policy toward the region. The strategy makes the important assessment that, “The prosperity of everyday Americans is linked to the Indo-Pacific.” As a result, there is a good deal of anticipation as we wait for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to be rolled out. In the meantime, there are also a lot of questions about the details of the IPEF. Before we can make any judgments about IPEF, we will need to have those details. I think it is fair to say that US officials are attuned to the perception that Washington needs to enhance the economic dimensions of its Indo-Pacific engagement on an official level. I say “on an official level” because there can be no doubt that American businesses are deeply invested in the region and have been for decades. So, let’s wait and see what IPEF brings to the table.

Hwang: Improving the trilateral cooperation between US-ROK-Japan was also suggested as an action plan in the Indo-Pacific strategy. Since Korea-Japan relations is not in the most comfortable flow, the Indo-Pacific strategy seems to be applied to drag Korea into what the US is drawing, whether it is the improvement of Korea-Japan relations or US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation.

Finkelstein: It goes without saying that the Republic of Korea and Japan are two of the most critical actors in the region and have gravitas beyond the region. Both South Korea and Japan have highly developed economies, both are regional as well as international trade heavyweights, both are global leaders in cutting-edge technologies — which is the coin of the realm in the 21st century. Both have international soft power and cachet, both have vibrant democracies, both face pressing security challenges in the region, and both are much-valued treaty allies of the United States. Without strong trilateral ties between the ROK, Japan and the US it is difficult to imagine a future political, economic or security environment in Asia that will reflect the values that all three countries share or that assures their many common interests. So, it is not surprising to me that the US Indo-Pacific Strategy specifically mentions ROK-US-Japan relations.

All three countries will at times have differences and disagreements. But the pressing need to strengthen trilateral ties, as well as ROK-Japan bilateral relations, could not be clearer. North Korea’s launch of the Hwasong-17 ICBM on March 24 is but one example that makes this imperative crystal clear, in my view. The US can help with the former (trilateral relations). It is up to Seoul and Tokyo to deal with the latter. Finally, it is worth pointing out that the current crisis in Europe underscores what is possible when unity of effort among allies and partners is achieved, and what is at risk when it is not.

Hwang: The US-ROK Summit last year has stressed Korea’s international role. How far do you anticipate Korea’s role to be in the frame of the Indo-Pacific strategy?

Finkelstein: South Korea brings a lot to the table in terms of being able to buttress key aspects of the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. For one thing, the ROK, along with the US and Japan, is an absolutely indispensable partner, a vital partner, in any collective attempts to work toward the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. And needless to say, the US-ROK military alliance remains a powerful deterrent force.

Next, Seoul’s “New Southern Policy” (NSP) — with its “Three Pillars” of “People, Prosperity, and Peace” — and the “New Southern Policy-Plus” are very much simpatico with aspects of Washington’s approach to the region. Like the US Indo-Pacific strategy, the NSP recognizes the immense importance of the member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as India, to the future prosperity and security of the entire region.

Finally, the ROK has an important role to play in regional and global supply chain security, dealing with the increasingly pressing challenge of climate change, and certainly contributing to the international battle against COVID-19 and future pandemic preparedness. As important as anything else, however, it is the ROK’s democratic values and its commitment to a regional and international order based on law that makes Seoul such a valued partner for many in the region and beyond.

Hwang: Ukraine is not an ally of the US and is facing a great crisis. Taiwan is not an official ally of the US as well. How important and what role does Taiwan take in the Indo-Pacific strategy?

Finkelstein: The US administration, and many of its allies and partners, are seeking an Asia-Pacific region in which coercion is rejected as a policy choice. In this regard, there is growing concern in Washington and abroad over Beijing’s increasing diplomatic, economic, and informational pressure on Taiwan. This concern, for example, was evident in the May 2021 joint statement by our two presidents in which it was stated that “President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

A recent disconcerting development is the ramping up of PRC military pressure on Taiwan. That military pressure includes military aircraft flying dozens of sorties into the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the People’s Liberation Army joint exercises in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait, and PRC naval activities to the east of the island. This increasing pressure is called out in the strategy. As a result, the document states that the US will continue “supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities” in a manner consistent with the various US government guidelines, policies, or laws that guide relations with both Beijing and Taipei, such as the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques with Beijing, and the Six Assurances.

Notably, the strategy reaches out beyond regional actors, stating the willingness of the US to work nations outside the Asia-Pacific in creating an environment conducive to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. So, while it may be going too far to say that Taiwan has a “role” in the strategy, the strategy certainly sees a stable and peaceful cross-strait dynamic as something it aspires to underwrite.

Hwang: You are currently serving as vice president and director of CNA’s China and Indo-Pacific security affairs. What are the goals and the capacity of the Indo-Pacific strategy from a military perspective?

Finkelstein: Another noteworthy feature of the Indo-Pacific strategy is that the need to “Bolster Indo-Pacific Security,” which is the section which discusses military affairs, was the fourth of the five objectives in the document. In other words, this document is about much more than the military dimensions of US policy in the region. And if I were a betting man, I would wager that the authors of the strategy placed the discussion of military and security affairs toward the end of the document precisely to make that point.

Having said that, the section on security affairs provides a pretty good thumbnail sketch of some of the key approaches by which the military element of national power will be applied by the US. It highlights innovation in high-tech domains, the critical importance of allies and partners, and forward presence. Once again, we note that the document refers to allies and partners not just in the Asia-Pacific region, but also those from beyond the region as part of the political-military approach to the Indo-Pacific. This latter point underscores that many countries beyond Asia have rising equities in the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific. One notes that in the recent past naval forces from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada have all made deployments to the region precisely because of their important national interests in this part of the world.

Also noteworthy is that the document states that, “Integrated deterrence will be the cornerstone” of the US approach to security affairs in the Indo-Pacific — and beyond, actually. This is a security concept that is worth exploring in more depth. It is ubiquitous in US defense circles and speaks to tighter whole of government coordination, closer ally and partner unity of effort, operations in multiple battlespace domains, and across the spectrum of conflict.

Hwang: Would you please explain what is the naval dimension in the Indo-Pacific strategy?

Finkelstein: The United States armed forces is a joint force. Therefore, technically speaking, there are no separate US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Army, US Air Force, or US Space Force operational strategies for the Indo-Pacific. If readers are interested in how the US Navy in particular is planning to build and train the maritime forces that the commander in the Indo-Pacific, and other regional combatant commanders, will need to execute their geographically focused missions, I would refer them to the December 2020 tri-service maritime strategy entitled “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power.” This document was developed jointly by the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and US Coast Guard, and is publicly available.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Choi He-suk (