“Today, the Indo-Pacific increasingly is confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests,” warns the report, which was released on June 1.
The scathing criticisms of China coincided with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s visit to Singapore to attend the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s biggest security summit, which took place May 31 to June 2.
While there, Shanahan blasted China for its “toolkit of coercion,” including stealing technologies from other countries and militarizing manmade outposts in the South China Sea, according to the Associated Press.
“The Indo-Pacific is our priority theater,” Shanahan said on June 1.
The United States currently has a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific. According to an article on the Pentagon website that covered Shanahan’s speech in Singapore, the country has more than 370,000 service members in the Indo-Pacific, training and working alongside allied and partner forces in the region.
The U.S. military also has more than 2,000 military aircraft and more than 200 ships and submarines to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, according to the article. All in all, Shanahan concluded that the U.S. Pacific Command “has four times more assigned forces than any other geographic combatant command.”
The Indo-Pacific is an important region for commercial activities. According to the Pentagon report, nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are located in the region. In terms of trade volume, a quarter of U.S. exports go to the region, while a third of all global shipping passes through the South China Sea alone.
The report warns that “as China continues its economic and military ascendance, it seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long-term.”
China mainly achieves that through “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations” in the region, the report stated.
For example, China has sent maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to patrol near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, in an act of intimidation that “undermines regional stability.”
The Senkaku Islands, located in the East China Sea, are controlled by Japan, but both China and Taiwan claim the island as part of their territory.
Meanwhile, Chinese investments in countries throughout the region are “one-sided and opaque.” An example provided in the report was how China has built infrastructure projects in the Maldives “at significantly inflated prices compared to what was previously agreed.”
In December last year, Maldives Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer said at a press conference that the country’s national debt stood at $3.7 billion, which equaled 53 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the local broadcaster Raajje TV. Of the $3.7 billion, $1.4 billion were owed to China, mostly for funding “One Belt, One Road” projects as part of China’s foreign policy initiative.
In addition, the report stated that Beijing’s predatory economics comes in the form of “converting unsustainable debt burdens of recipient countries” into “strategic and military access, including by taking possession of sovereign assets as collateral.”
For example, Beijing seized control of the seaport of Hambantota in Sri Lanka for 99 years, after the latter defaulted on Chinese loans for building it. China took advantage “of Sri Lanka’s need for cash when its government faced daunting external debt repayment obligations,” the report said.
The Pentagon is also worried that China “is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on [Cambodia’s] coast, which would “challenge regional security.”
Beijing has invested heavily in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville, which is home to the country’s only deepwater port. Chinese warships have repeatedly visited the port in recent years.
“China’s coercive behavior is playing out globally, from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America and Europe,” the report concluded.
Taiwan’s role in the region was brought up in Shanahan’s Singapore speech and the Pentagon report.
According to Taiwanese news site Focus Taiwan, Shanahan said that Washington would continue to supply Taiwan with military equipment, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), for the island’s self-defense.
“This support empowers the people of Taiwan to determine their own future,” he added.
Beijing considers Taiwan as a renegade province, despite the latter being a de facto independent country with democratically elected officials and a separate constitution, military, and currency.
Diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Washington were severed after the latter switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. Since then, Washington and Taiwan have maintained non-official relations based on the TRA, which former U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed into law in April 1979.
For years, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been crucial for the island to fend off China’s military intimidation, which takes the form of military exercises and Chinese bombers and jets flying close to Taiwan. The Pentagon report reiterated that Washington “is committed to providing Taiwan with defense articles and services” in order to resist China’s “use of force or other forms of coercion.”
Since 2008, the United States has conducted more than $22 billion worth of foreign military sales to Taiwan, the report added.
The U.S. military also hinted at a strengthened partnership with Taiwan, naming the island nation, along with Mongolia, New Zealand, and Singapore, as “natural partners of the United States” in defending the region’s stability.
“All four countries contribute to U.S. missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order. The strength of these relationships is what we hope to replicate in our new and burgeoning relationships in the Indo-Pacific,” the report stated.
In response to Shanahan’s comments in Singapore, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its gratitude for the continued U.S. support, noting that the Taiwanese government would continue to work with neighboring like-minded countries, to contribute to the long-term stability, peace, and prosperity of the region, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Alexander Huang, assistant professor at the International Affairs and Strategic Studies in Taiwan’s Tamkang University, told local public broadcaster PTS that it’s very significant that Pentagon has placed such emphasis on Taiwan in its latest report.
“It highlights the fact the current U.S.–Taiwan relationship is gradually warming,” Huang said.