President's Commentary: A Dynamic Region Becomes More Unstable

February 1, 2021
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The Indo-Pacific region continues to increase in importance and activity. A broad range of actions must be taken to preserve democracy and freedom in this most critical region. The threat to the democratic ideals respected around the world is not abstract but real, and it comes from multiple sources. Stopping the march against human rights violations, promotion of destructive economic, geopolitical activity and threatening military actions requires proactive, not reactive, measures. These measures must be thoughtfully and rapidly implemented.

The threat comes from nations large and small. At the head of the march is China and its domineering communist party (CCP) buttressed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which assertively follows a hegemonic policy of engulfing and dominating nations throughout the region. Its authoritarian government is pursuing dictatorial, invasive and repressive policies, both domestically and internationally (witness the civil rights violations against the Uyghurs or the political crackdowns in Hong Kong, along with the intimidation of Taiwan and others).

China’s international economic activities are often deceptive and destructive. Under the false guise of free trade, China pursues a form of economic expansionism and influence that involves trapping nations in unsustainable debt through its Belt and Road Initiative, et al., and predatory loan practices.

China shares comparatively few of the values that free and democratic nations hold near and dear. It operates with relative impunity in its disregard for global norms and laws. Further, China’s characterization of geopolitical history is often flawed.

Longtime regional U.S. allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are beacons of democratic elections, human rights and free societies. India is the world’s largest democracy. Other nations seek to flourish by adopting democratic models of government and social development. All these nations are threatened to some degree or another by the march of totalitarianism. Subduing the encroachment of Chinese totalitarianism will require cooperative strategic moves by the United States and its Indo-Pacific and global partners.

On a positive front, all the concerned nations can work together to strengthen their relationships and common goals, militarily, economically and diplomatically. They need to cooperate to develop an improved form of collective security in the face of China’s aggressive moves. This means overcoming the fear of Chinese retaliation.

The best way to provide a counterbalance to Chinese influence-buying is to boost free trade among like-minded nations throughout the region. Stronger economic ties to democratic nations such as India can be complemented by continued improved relations with countries that have a lot to lose to China, such as Vietnam. It may be difficult for the region to accommodate a singular alliance such as NATO or the EU, but it can find security through a series of interdependent agreements.

Information operations must be expanded and improved. The Cold War was a battle of ideas and wills. The West prevailed because its overall messaging and economic strength carried the day. In this era of global connectivity and social media, allied democratic governments must develop an information strategy to counter Chinese mistruths and influence operations to promote the advantages of democratic governments over the authoritarianism foisted on the people of China by the CCP.

On the military front, the United States and allies must move forward with a stronger presence throughout the vast region. An expanded cooperative engagement strategy between the United States and the other nations threatened by China’s expansionist moves can help build confidence in the U.S. commitment to a free and peaceful Indo-Pacific. Above all, broad, coordinated “all-of-government” actions can reassure other countries that the United States and our allies are here to stay and will not succumb to Chinese pressure.

Although increasingly becoming an international juggernaut, China and its aggressive efforts betray several diplomatic and economic weaknesses that can be exploited. Where those weaknesses exist, the United States and its allies must leverage opportunities to neutralize and counter Chinese aggression to demonstrate commitment to Indo-Pacific security. Nations of the region must be confident that the U.S. presence will remain to protect everyone’s interests.

There needs to be a redoubling of effort to strengthen diplomatic relationships with our regional and global partners. This must take place underneath the umbrella of an effective cooperative engagement security environment promoted by strong U.S. leadership and strength.

No one wants a major conflict, but allowing ourselves to be forced into a geopolitical position where we have no alternative but to succumb to the global whims of China is equally unacceptable. An overarching strategy that encompasses diplomacy, global norms and fair trade underwritten by a highly capable military may be the best hope of preserving freedom and democracy in the Indo-Pacific region.

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