President's Commentary: The Indo-Pacific Region Has Entered a Crucial Period

November 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Key moments in history are often determined after the fact. But today, we have the luxury of knowing that we are at an important nexus in geopolitics. We stand at a crossroads in the Indo-Pacific region, and the actions we take now may well determine the future of the region and beyond.

Issues abound. India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, have witnessed an increase in hostility along their common border. Terrorist organizations flow from Southwest Asia into the archipelagos of southern Asia, and North Korea remains a secretive puzzle with a massive potential for violence.

But at the center of this intersection is the Middle Kingdom, China. Almost all the Indo-Pacific nations are nervous about China and its ambitions. The United States has been a major force for stability throughout this vast region since the end of World War II. The peace and security guaranteed by the United States for decades has fostered steady growth in prosperity among the many countries girding the world’s largest ocean. But now, China is boldly and openly challenging the region and world order.

China has aggressively created artificial islands on reefs and established bases from which to make territorial claims and project military power into vital sea lanes. It has acted unilaterally in disputed territories, ignoring international legal rulings that counter its claims. Its Belt and Road Initiative ostensibly would expand trade routes for economic growth across more than half the world, but closer analyses reveal a form of economic imperialism that threatens other nations’ sovereignty through unwitting indebtedness and potential military intimidation—and China has clamped down on human rights and civil liberties within its borders.

Above all, China’s view of history and its “rightful role” are not necessarily shared by scholars from other nations. If left unchallenged, China will shape international bodies and conduct itself according to its interests alone. China’s overall strategy is to develop a strong influence over economic, political and military aspects of the region. The country’s tentacles are spreading even beyond the Indo-Pacific region into other parts of the world, including Europe, Central America, South America, Africa and the polar regions.

China wants to dominate the world, but allegedly doesn’t want to rule it in a traditional manner. Instead, China wants the world to acquiesce to its wishes so it can do whatever it wants, wherever it wants. China’s vision is a world dominated by the Middle Kingdom and supported by everyone else, with little room for dissent or discord.

China itself is at a crossroads. Its once-rampaging economy has slowed, and the cries for deserved democracy in Hong Kong run the risk of resonating to the mainland. This issue alone could have far-reaching consequences if ruling secretary Xi Jinping moves to crush the uprising. Many nations, to include Taiwan, have deep-seated interests in the outcome of Hong Kong’s political standoff.

For a long time, China moved deliberately, in carefully measured steps as it rose to prominence. Lately, however, it has shown its hand through aggressive moves as part of an accelerated effort to wrest control and influence of select world institutions and nations. It has increased a range of cyber operations and economic-political-military influence operations under the sinister veil of nonkinetic conflict. Coercion remains a key tool. Intimidated by China’s rapid, yet thoughtful, rise, many nations struggle to find the balance between independence and the need to adapt to Chinese influence and goals in the Indo-Pacific region and well beyond.

At this nexus, the challenge for the United States and its allies and partners is to posture themselves to ensure a balanced security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. For example, relations between Japan and the United States constitute one of the strongest bilateral global partnerships, and both sides should further strengthen it. Alliances and traditional relationships with South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and others can be the basis for a strong, integrated partnership for protecting collective interests.

These interests include free trade, freedom of navigation, civil liberties and cooperative military engagement to reinforce trust and confidence in our commitment. The United States and its partners can develop economic and national security incentives that keep nations from throwing their full lot in with the Chinese, while guarding against unfair Chinese trade barriers and simultaneously protecting our oft-purloined intellectual property.

The autocracy that is China is its strength and its center of gravity. We must educate our own people and those of our allies to increase awareness and solidify actions against Chinese hegemony.

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