The Indo-Pacific Security Outlook: An American View

By Scott W Harold, Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation

Today we introduce a series of articles on the 2022 regional security outlook from the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). Here Scott W. Harold argues the manifold security challenges facing the region may require the US to place as much weight on engagement with allies and partners as measures to meet the China challenge head-on.

How do US observers see the Indo-Pacific security outlook and what are the primary considerations shaping their assessments?

Tensions in the region are rising and strategic trends include both negative factors and more positive developments. The most prominent factor attracting US attention is China’s growing power and ambition, repressiveness at home, and aggressiveness abroad, particularly its threat to Taiwan.  Other factors include North Korea’s advancing military capabilities; diplomatic and governance trends in Southeast Asia; and the seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

US policymakers are also striving to deepen ties with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, India, and European partners, as well as encourage cooperation among these countries. Finally, COVID and climate change round out the policy challenges US observers are watching closely.

The rise of an aggressive, ambitious, revisionist China under Xi Jinping is clearly the leading factor in US views of Indo-Pacific security. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance clearly identifies democracy as under threat from would-be authoritarians at home and actual authoritarians abroad.

President Biden has spoken of the likelihood that the US-China relationship will be characterised by “extreme competition,” while Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has described China as an “unparalleled” priority.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Coordinator Kurt Campbell have clarified that the US believes it can pursue “competition without catastrophe” by rallying allies and partners to redefine the playing field in ways that advantage the liberal international order, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that the relationship with China will be “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, [and] adversarial where it must be.”

The PRC’s belief that the US is its enemy; campaigns of genocide in Xinjiang and ethnic erasure against the Tibetans and Mongols (among others); systematic repression against Falun Gong; and deepening human rights violations against the Han majority have reshaped the debate over China in the US.

So too has China’s violation of its sovereign commitments to the United Kingdom and dismantling of freedom of the people of Hong Kong, as a result of which the US sanctioned 24 Hong Kong officials in April. China has also caught attention by engaging in hostage diplomacy; industrial-scale theft of intellectual property and cyber intrusions; and other violations of economic norms.

China has been rapidly reforming and modernising the People’s Liberation Army, which is tasked with being ready to “fight and win informatized local wars.” The PLA’s goal is to be able to “defeat, not merely compete” with the US in executing information systems-based system of systems confrontation and systems destruction warfare.

Expert observers assess that a fair evaluation of the “military scorecard” would show that China’s military power has been closing the gap with the US in a number of dimensions and has been moving quickly to deal with the weaknesses in its “incomplete military transformation.”

Experts have noted important advances in PLA nuclear capabilities and “integrated strategic deterrence”; information warfare tools in the space, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum and psychological warfare domains; a growing penchant for conducting disinformation campaigns on social media; evolving logistics support for expeditionary operations; and increasing use of grey zone operations in the maritime, cyber, and space domains.

China’s advances stem from investing greater resources, encouraging strategic distraction by the US and other nations and discouraging counterbalancing, and an aggressive strategy of military-civil fusion.

Externally, the greatest prospects for a US-China conflict appear to be over Taiwan, in the East and South China Seas, on the Korean peninsula, in space or cyberspace, or possibly as a result of a clash between China and India.

Among these, the PRC threat to Taiwan has garnered the most attention, with former USINDOPACOM Commander Adm. Phil Davidson warning in March that a conflict could come “within the next six years,” and his successor Adm. John Aquilino arguing it could be “closer than most of us think.”

In response, the US has launched a Pacific Deterrence Initiative, and is tightening its cooperation with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific. It has also begun updating and evolving its approach to deterrence and warfighting in the region, including by transforming the approach to command and control as well as combat operations that the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines employ.

Secs Lloyd Austin III and Antony Blinken
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet with Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in, Seoul, Republic of Korea - March 18, 2021. Image credit: US Department of State, Flickr.

Even as US policy grapples with the continued rise of a revisionist China, it must simultaneously cope with a North Korean regime, aspects of whose decision-making remains difficult to shape or even predict. Pyongyang is currently rejecting dialogue with the US even as it refuses to follow through on its commitments to denuclearise.

Instead, it appears to have restarted the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and is continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal, which is driving at least four new policy challenges on the peninsula. Some US experts have argued for a Maximum Pressure 2.0 approach, while others worry that efforts to compel Pyongyang to denuclearise could ultimately prompt the very war they are designed to head-off.

Even as it advances its nuclear arsenal, the Kim Family Regime is also developing its conventional capabilities to threaten US allies South Korea and Japan, as well as US forces in those countries. The Kim regime’s continued development of long-range artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, short-range ballistic missiles, long-range cruise missiles, rail-mobile and submarine launch platforms; its chemical and biological weapons programs; and its use of the nerve agent VX have all raised anxieties.

North Korea’s embrace of cyber tools for ransomware, bank heists, and cyber-enabled economic warfare represent another growing concern. Analysts have also warned not to overlook the threat the regime poses in terms of horizontal proliferation, especially to the Middle East.

And behind all of the regime’s external threats lies the systematic brutality it employs against its own people that makes it one of the most repressive countries in the world. Indeed, Pyongyang’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, shutting its borders almost entirely, has likely dramatically worsened hunger and famine across the country.

Washington has made clear it is willing to provide humanitarian assistance, but thus far the regime has shown no interest in talking or accepting assistance.

On Southeast Asia, even before taking office, experts on the region were advising the Biden administration of the need to be “realistic” about ties with increasingly pro-China ally Thailand, which was an early case of the region’s democratic backsliding in 2014.

The administration faced a crisis early on when the Myanmar military launched a coup, ousting the government of Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and reinstituting mass repression.

While events in Myanmar started the year off on a sour note, Washington took a bold and positive step for the region in April, joining hands with its Quad partners Australia, India and Japan in announcing plans to provide Southeast Asian nations with up to 1 billion COVID vaccine doses.

Progress on that initiative was complicated by the surge in Delta variant cases across India in late spring, but the US responded by accelerating vaccine donations abroad, leading to over 113 million distributed by early September.

In May, disaster struck for Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala-402, which sunk during a torpedo drill. Unfortunately, the US, Australia and other nations failed to step in to assist Jakarta, which ultimately turned to Beijing for help with recovery efforts, leading to a significant missed opportunity in the region.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in July to deepen security ties, resulting in a successful visit that prompted Manila to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement and resume joint exercises.

And Vice-President Kamala Harris followed up with her own visit to Singapore and Hanoi in August in an “important” signal to the region that the US will remain engaged, even after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

The sudden collapse of the Kabul government shook confidence in the Biden administration’s approach in some quarters, especially in the US, something China sought to play on in its propaganda.

In East Asia, however, allies and partners in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan largely shrugged off facile comparisons to Afghanistan. Partly, this was due to the vast differences between these countries and Afghanistan, and partly to clear US signalling that the Afghan withdrawal was intended in part to facilitate a greater US focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, in the weeks immediately bracketing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration announced a $750 million arms sale to Taiwan; undertook the ninth transit of the Taiwan Strait by the US Navy in 2021; initiated a new AUKUS security partnership with the UK and Australia; and announced plans to welcome the leaders of the Quad to Washington for an in-person summit meeting.

Separately, the US has lauded the military visits to the region by UK, French, and German naval vessels throughout 2021, participating in joint amphibious exercises with France, Australia, and Japan.

Diplomatically, the Biden administration won supportive statements about the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait from Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the G7, as well as condemnation from many partners of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

And it elicited significant cooperation on countering digital authoritarian technologies, including coordination on hampering China’s 5G strategy, putting in place moves to bolster US capacity in leading chip design and manufacturing, wooing TSMC to expand its commitment to build new production facilities in the US, and moved to cut off Beijing’s access to advanced node semiconductors as well as the hardware needed to make them.

Clearly, as the US donations of COVID-19 vaccines to South Korea (1 million doses) and Taiwan (2.5 million doses) show, Washington is striving to assist the region in meeting the threat posed by the global pandemic, including by vaccinating US forces in the region as well as contractors and their families.

In some cases, the challenge posed by continued resistance to vaccination in some quarters in the US has complicated regional cooperation by raising concerns among allies about the US military as a possible vector for COVID spread.

Separately, tensions with Paris over the AUKUS agreement and the cancellation of a French submarine sale to Australia similarly threaten to slow the building of regional and extra-regional cooperation.

AUSMIN meeting
Australian Minister for Defence Peter Dutton and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne meet with their US counterparts for the 2021 AUSMIN talks, Washington, D.C., US - September 16, 2021. Image credit: US Department of State, Flickr.

And in Northeast Asia, persistent frictions between the progressive South Korean government and Japan may require continuing US efforts to prevent them from spilling over.

Finally, US policy is seeking to build a broad coalition to combat global warming, including through dialogue with China, despite Beijing’s hints that climate cooperation “cannot possibly be divorced,” in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s phrasing, from the need for US concessions on issues the PRC cares about.

The Biden administration, however, has recognised that China will take steps to address climate change because doing so is in China’s national interest, and not as a favour or to reciprocate steps the US has taken.

Moreover, China is by no means the only important counterpart on this issue, and the US has advanced important agreements on climate change and decarbonisation with ASEAN, India, Japan, and South Korea, among others.

The Indo-Pacific is witnessing greater tensions as more countries band together to push back against China’s increasingly assertive behaviour. Yet as important as it is, China is not the only country of concern in the region.

The challenges of managing threats from North Korea, COVID and climate change — as well as addressing democratic backsliding and differences among US allies and partners — mean that Washington may need to continue to devote nearly as much attention to alliance management and diplomacy with partners as it does to marshalling its resources to meet the China challenge head-on.

Increased self-confidence in the fundamental sources of US strength, paired with a national security strategy that asks more of allies and partners even as the US commits more of its own resources to the region, may hold the best promise of, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner wrote in a 2020 report, rising to the China challenge.

Scott W. Harold is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, VA, US.

Banner image: Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73), Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ship JS Kashima (TV-3508) participate in a Cooperative Deployment (CODEP) near Hawaiian islands - October 4, 2021. Credit: US Indo-Pacific Command, Flickr.

This article was first published in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific’s Regional Security Outlook 2022.