With just a week to go before its end, the Trump administration has declassified a sensitive document on the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific from 2018. The 10-page document, declassified in part by US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, outlines objectives and strategies with regard to China, North Korea, India and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Framed more than two years before the India-China military standoff along the Line of Actual Control, the strategy makes more than 20 mentions of India – seeing it as pre-eminent in South Asia… taking on the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security. And in this regard the document says the United States will build a stronger foundation for defence cooperation, expand defence trade and ability to transfer defence technology to enhance India’s status as a Major Defence Partner, increase cooperation on shared regional security concerns and encourage India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean Region. On the other hand, China is the primary state actor of concern outlined in the document. As per the Framework, Beijing is increasingly pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a "common destiny" envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party. On this edition of the Big Picture, we will analyse the declassified US report on Indo Pacific and the growing importance of India in the region.
Edited Excerpts from the Debate
The ‘focus areas’ of the document
The framework is focused on recalibrating U.S. policy to compete with a more powerful, ambitious, and belligerent China.
The document defines the “top interests” of the U.S. in the region as follows:
defend the homeland and American citizens abroad
prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them
preserve U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military access to the most populous region of the world and more than one-third of the global economy
enhance the credibility and effectiveness of our alliances
maintain U.S. primacy in the region while protecting American core values and liberties at home
The 10-page document, titled “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” formally classified as SECRET and not for release to foreign nationals.
It was compiled in 2018 and was expected to remain classified until 2043.
It provided overarching strategic guidance for implementing the 2017 National Security Strategy within the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.
How does the US see China?
The US sees Chinaas a strategic competitor bent on circumventing international rules and norms and a key security concern across the Indo-Pacific region, where Beijing wants to establish “new, illiberal spheres of influence”.
One of the main national security challenges for the US in the region is maintaining its primacy and promoting a “liberal economic order while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence”.
China’s economic, diplomatic and military influence will “continue to increase in the near-term and challenge the US ability to achieve its national interests in the Indo-Pacific”.
What does it say about India?
The document states the end objectivesfor various countries in the region, including the Quad countries — US, India, Japan and Australia.
In the document, the US pledged commitment to India’s Security and Growth for All Regions policy.
It also states that it is an American objective that India remains preeminent in South Asia and grows its economy, defence capability and diplomatic power to cooperate with the US and other allies and partners.
The document notes that the US will seek to enhance India’s border security and secure India’s access to the waters of the river Brahmaputra.
Furthermore, the US will also support India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, and work “with India toward domestic economic reform and an increased leadership role in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ADMM+ (Asean Defence Ministers Meeting)”.
The US Indo-Pacific Coordinator
President-elect Joe Biden appointed top American diplomat Kurt M. Campbell as the ‘Indo-Pacific Coordinator’.
This new title given to any American diplomat for the first time ever is an indication that the incoming Biden administration will follow the same path, if not a more enhanced one, that the outgoing Trump government followed when it came to keeping the limelight on arresting China’s rise in the region, while working out a more strategic partnership with some of US’ allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and India.
Today, any strategy for the Indo-Pacific would benefit ONLY from, the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both. Such an approach can ensure that the Indo-Pacific’s future is characterized by balance and twenty-first-century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence.
The Indo-Pacific region
The Indo-Pacific region refers to the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which interconnect in Southeast Asia.
Key-stakeholders: The Indo-Pacific region is a vast maritime zone where the interests of many players are engaged: India, Japan, France, and the United States, as well as medium and smaller powers like Australia, Indonesia, and South Africa; there are stakeholders from beyond the region, too.
The region is increasingly being viewed as a global centre of gravity, both for its economic and demographic potential, and the security challenges that could frustrate those possibilities.
Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR)
The Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR), sitting at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe, is gaining greater strategic importance.
The region’s rich natural resource profile, estimated to be worth at least US$333.8 billion, has generated interest amongst the bigger world economies.
For India, the region is part of its strategic maritime frontier which extends from the Persian Gulf, to the East coast of Africa, and across the Malacca Strait.
Significant traffic of container shipping transits the region and is home to some of the most vital and strategic maritime chokepoints such as Gulf of Aden, Bab-el-Mandeb, Mozambique Channel, Strait of Hormuz, and Cape of Good Hope.
India’s strategy for Indo-Pacific region
India has been championing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) idea, initiating forums like the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI).
It engages with its Indo-Pacific partners either bilaterally, or on plurilateral and multilateral platforms, in a multitude of spheres including maritime security, Blue Economy, maritime connectivity, disaster management, and capacity building.
SAGAR: To promote its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, India launched the SAGAR vision in 2015.
Indo-Pacific wing: In April 2019, India set up an Indo-Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
The division is meant to integrate under one Indo-Pacific umbrella, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, and the Quadrilateral of the US, Japan, Australia, and India.
Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI): On 4 November 2019, India launched the IPOI at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok. The main objective of the IPOI is to ensure the safety, security, and stability of the maritime domain, and to do that, seven pillars have been laid out.
Oceania division: An Oceania division was created in the MEA in September 2020 to bring India’s administrative and diplomatic focus on the region stretching from western Pacific (with the Pacific islands) to the Andaman Sea.
Key Initiatives by ASEAN Countries
Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia
MALSINDO – for maritime patrolling of the Strait of Malacca to curb piracy
Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines Trilateral Patrol in the Sulu Sea
ROK, Turkey, Australia
Republic of Korea, Turkey, and Australia (MITKA)
Australia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Timor Leste
South West Pacific Dialogue
Over the past three years, the US has signed three key defence agreements, one at each of the 2+2 ministerial meetings, to facilitate the real-time sharing of sensitive military information and transfer of sophisticated technology.
These agreements are
the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA)
the Industrial Security Annex to the General Security of Military Information Agreement
the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)