Trump’s Indo-Pacific Vision Aims to Contain ‘Authoritarian Revisionist Powers:’ State Department

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
November 15, 2019 Updated: November 18, 2019

The State Department recently released a report on how it is working with allies and partners to implement a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific that focuses on containing the “repressive visions of the future international order” pushed by certain global powers.

The report, released on Nov. 4, says that the countries in the Indo-Pacific unlike ever before are facing a threat to their “sovereignty, prosperity, and peace.”

“The U.S. National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, recognizes that the most consequential challenge to U.S. and partner interests is the growing competition between free and repressive visions of the future international order,” it reads. “Authoritarian revisionist powers seek to advance their parochial interests at others’ expense.”

National and regional policy analysts say that “authoritarian revisionist powers” is a direct hint at a few global powers, particularly China.

“I think this is a clear reference to China, and also potentially Russia,” Zack Cooper, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Cooper, who studies U.S. alliances and partnerships in Asia, U.S.-China strategic competition, and Chinese economic statecraft and coercion, said that some in the U.S. administration “see the United States and most of its allies and partners as competing with China and Russia to determine the future international order.”

Epoch Times Photo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, on July 30, 2018. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Regional expert Rukmani Gupta told The Epoch Times that the statement about “authoritarian revisionist powers” is not unique.

“The U.S. has always couched its foreign policy in terms of universal values namely—human rights, democracy. It can be viewed as implying that the U.S. vision of the international order is inclusive and consensus-based, therefore preferable,” said Gupta a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi.

“No one state is mentioned in the statement, but all those countries that are criticized as being undemocratic and challenging U.S. leadership in the prevailing global order can be inferred to be ‘authoritarian revisionist powers’ for instance—Russia, North Korea, China, Iran,” she said.

Indo-Pacific a ‘Top Priority’

In an introductory message to the Nov. 4 report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that President Donald Trump “has made U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific region a top priority of his Administration.”

“In November 2017 in Vietnam, he outlined a vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all countries prosper side by side as sovereign, independent states,” said Pompeo adding that this vision is shared by billions in more than 35 countries.

He defined this vision as the “wish to prosper in a free and open future” that includes “free, fair, and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, good governance, and freedom of the seas.”

W. Alejandro Sanchez, a geopolitical expert based in Washington, told The Epoch Times that the Trump administration’s policy and its vision about a free and open Indo-Pacific “does not differ much from previous ones,” but added that there is something more “under the hood” of these statements and the strategic objectives are focused on a “couple of actors,” namely China and North Korea.

An analysis published early this year by the Brookings Institute mentions that the United States is noticing the growing influence of China’s “global role and increasingly hardline policies” on developing countries.

Epoch Times Photo
The Sihanoukville port in Cambodia, part of the Chinese regime’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative.  (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

“The implications of China’s growing investments linked to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its ambitious global infrastructure and connectivity program, are increasingly debated,” wrote David Shullman, Senior Adviser at the International Republican Institute and Adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “So, too, are the nature of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) efforts to popularize its authoritarian model and undermine developing democracies around the world, whether intentionally or indirectly,” said Shullman.

He mentioned that Vice President Mike Pence in November last year had directly outlined that the Trump administration, “through its Indo-Pacific strategy, intends to bolster the rule of law and human rights in regional countries facing growing influence from China.”

Shullman, in his analysis, mentioned that the Chinese approach increases corruption and undermines political and financial independence.

“China, in part to defend its economic interests, also interferes in the political systems of developing countries around the world, tipping the scales towards China-friendly politicians and policies,” said Shullman.

Freedom vs Oppression

The State Department in its Nov. 4 document said that Americans “believe in fundamental freedom of conscience, religion, speech, and assembly” and that the Chinese regime “is intolerant of dissent, aggressively controls media and civil society, and brutally suppresses ethnic and religious minorities” and that it exports this approach to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Such practices, which Beijing exports to other countries through its political and economic influence, undermine the conditions that have promoted stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for decades,” said the State Department in its chapter on “Championing Good Governance.” This is the only place in the report where the State Department took a direct shot at the Chinese regime.

Shullman had expressed the same analysis about the Chinese regime’s modus operandi when he said it tries to bolster its sense of legitimacy and gain influence over the developing world “by manipulating the information space to China’s advantage, a practice now commonly termed ‘sharp power.’ Beijing wants to protect its growing investments, ensure party control over ideology and information that might enter China, and legitimize China’s authoritarian development model abroad.”

High-rise blocks in Melbourne Victoria
A general view of high-rise and apartment buildings in the Docklands in Melbourne, Australia, on June 16, 2017. Victoria has become the first state in Australia to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also known as One Belt One Road, after having signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Oct. 25, 2018. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

He said the Chinese regime controls media abroad by entering into media agreements with other nations through its Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) and “advances information sharing intended to influence foreign journalists covering the BRI, including through conferences sponsored by the state-affiliated All-China Journalists Association.”

Shullman said that the “state-sponsored ideological conformity” that the Chinese regime adopts for its lasting “authoritarian Party rule” also gets extended to “ideological control abroad.”

Sanchez said that an analysis of how the Indo-Pacific has largely evolved, in his opinion, would mean how the Sino-America relationship evolved “from a potential partner or a country that the U.S. could ‘work with,’ to more of an outright competitor” in every sphere, including ideological influence.

“The ongoing ‘trade war’ between Beijing and Washington, China’s aggressive attitude towards Taiwan (including utilizing dollar diplomacy to ‘buy’ the recognition of Taipei’s remaining allies), the growing Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, and how this concerns Washington’s allies in the region, have all brought about this new security scenario,” he said.

State Department Defines India as a ‘Strategic Partner’

The introductory message by Pompeo to the Nov. 4 report defines India as a strategic partner while it doesn’t specifically mention any other individual nation.

“We are increasing the tempo and scope of our work with allies, partners, and regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Mekong states, the Pacific Island countries, and our strategic partner India to address shared challenges and advance a shared vision,” said Pompeo.

State Department states in the report that the U.S. strategic partnership with India is strengthening.

“Our strategic partnership with India, a fellow democracy of 1.3 billion people that shares our vision for the Indo-Pacific, is reaching new heights,” said the report.

Gupta said the strategic partnership shows the United States and India have a shared vision that they are willing to work closely together on, but doesn’t mean anything has been hashed out yet.

“No specific policy steps or actions define a ‘strategic partnership.’ Both India and the U.S. have designated a multitude of countries ‘strategic partners,’” she said.

Cooper, however, gives a different analysis of this partnership and says that not all allies “need to have the same vision.”

“Unlike NATO, each alliance in Asia is separate and was formed for different reasons, and often focused on different threats. Therefore, the question is whether the United States can get each ally to focus on what they do best to manage regional challenges.”

Cooper gave examples, saying that South Korea needs to focus on the peninsula, the Philippines is focused on its own territory and the surrounding waters, and Thailand is struggling with internal problems.

“So it is really on Japan and Australia [to play] a central role in supporting the Indo-Pacific concept. That is not ideal,” he said. “For this reason, adding in other countries that worry about how the Indo-Pacific region is changing—like India and Vietnam—is just as important as getting U.S. treaty allies to sign on to the approach,” he said.

Cooper said this is why he expects Washington to look for cooperation with “foreign leaders that worry about China’s rise, regardless of whether they are treaty allies of the United States.”

Epoch Times Photo
President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend “Howdy, Modi!” at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Sept 22, 2019. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Sanchez highlighted the same concerns, saying it’s difficult for the Trump administration “to keep a united front.”

“These governments generally see China as a security concern, and want a denuclearized North Korea, but of course this does not mean that these nations get along with each other,” he said. “South Korea-Japan tensions are an obvious example.”

He also said they’re likely less willing to enter into a conflict with China—whether trade, diplomatic, or armed—than the United States.

“Thailand is an interesting case, as the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, just met with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha … and the two chatted about increasing bilateral trade,” he said. “In other words, Beijing is resorting to dollar diplomacy to buy alliances and partnerships.”

Sanchez said that the White House is strategically partnering with India to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.

“China is strengthening ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other Asian/Southeast Asian states via investments as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and we see Chinese ships operating in the Indian Ocean. Hence, the U.S. government is trying to balance these developments by cementing its defense ties with India,” he said.

US Tour of Indo-Pacific

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper began his tour of four Indo-Pacific nations—South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam—on Nov. 13.

The Department of Defense (DoD) said Esper’s second visit within three months to the Indo-Pacific region, which Esper calls America’s “priority theater,” is to strengthen cooperation and “highlights the U.S. commitment to partnerships both old and new.”

The DoD said in a report titled “Esper Indo-Pacific Trip Highlights U.S. Emphasis on Alliances” that making alliances and new partners is “the second line of effort in the U.S. National Defense Strategy.”

It highlights China and Russia as the two greatest threats.

Kashish Parpiani, Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai, India said that the DoD defining Esper’s visit in Chinese and Russian context is “not surprising.”

“Esper’s visit is completely in line with the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy announcement of the return of the era of ‘great power competition,'” he said.

The DoD defined China’s threat emanating from its “fast-growing economy.”

“It’s investing in China’s People’s Liberation Army–which is not a national army, but the military force of the Chinese Communist Party–and modernizing forces, improving training and fielding new capabilities,” it said.

The DoD said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stated that he wants China to gain military supremacy by 2050.

“These (Chinese) military capabilities—artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, aircraft carriers, and more–are designed specifically with the U.S. military in mind.”

The DoD described the United States’ ability to “deploy anywhere in the world and supply the forces” as its biggest advantage over China and said that part of “America’s biggest edge” is its “alliance system.”

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (L) answers questions briefly with Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid Al-Attiyah (R) at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Nov. 6, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Highlighting the importance of Esper’s visit to the Indo-Pacific, the Department of Defense said that the Chinese military strategy against the United States is just one part of an all-out effort by the regime.

“They use diplomacy, political clout, and economic policies in conjunction with military power. The Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is a $1 trillion effort to change the current international system that has served the Indo-Pacific so well since 1945, to one that centers everything on Beijing,” it said.

Sanchez believes that despite “these positive declarations, and some important developments, Washington is sending conflicting messages to the region. For example, the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits in Thailand were attended by a low-level delegation, with the new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, as the most senior representative. No Trump, Pence, Pompeo, or Esper.”

Parpiani interprets Esper’s ongoing visit to the four Indo-Pacific nations as the United States’ attempt to make up for sending a downgraded delegation to the recent East Asia summits.

“I’d say the visit is to temper concerns of Indo-Pacific nations following the recently concluded East Asia summit in Thailand,” he said.

Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.