WASHINGTON — China’s Belt and Road Initiative of lending money to countries wanting to improve their infrastructure has been a shrewd tactic of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. But allies are growing wise to the strings that are attached: political, economic or military pressure as well as risks to sovereignty.
Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke to Defense News earlier this month in an exclusive interview during the Reagan National Defense Forum about China’s tactics and the role of the United States in supporting regional allies.
What’s the latest on where the whole-of-government strategy stands for the Indo-Pacific region?
There’s been a discussion with the region about what “free and open” means. I would say that there’s been a general convergence from other countries around this idea. Japan had a very similar vision, Australia as well. New Zealand announced in the summer of ’17 a vision. I would say that India’s Act East Policy is somewhat integrated with it, and then [Association of Southeast Asian Nations'] ASEAN’s free and open and inclusive vision, led by Indonesia during the course of this past summer, has been a part of this as well.
And the principles that we talk about it — free from coercion, free to exercise your economic choice, free to exercise your sovereignty, choose your security partners and all of this — is resonating across the region. And more and more we’re getting reflections back about the open aspect of it all, open airs and seaways. We’re garnering good support from Vietnam for example. Vocal support from one of the ASEAN’s with our operations in the South China Sea for open airways and seaways. We’ve been able to get allies and partners to conduct operations in the South China Sea, exercise with us, exercise with each other and others, during the course of the last year and a half.
And the idea that we need open and transparent agreements, protection, intellectual property rights — these are things that are not just coming from the United States anymore. They’re coming from across the region.
China is not respecting the nature of those agreements or policies. How disruptive is that?
This is where I think the economics and the mutual security concerns that the region has, as well as the depth of the relationship that they enjoy with the United States, is so important. And our values compete really, really well. To the point that when some of this pernicious activity happens from China, whether it’s unviable, corrupt, or “One Belt One Road” kind of developmental initiatives, people in the region are starting to reject them — renegotiate things that they don’t think are viable; call us, particularly if there’s a direct security component related to it.
Tuvalu, a little Island nation with $40 million in gross domestic product, rejected a $400 million offer from China to build some artificial levies and features to help them deal with climate change because they thought it was a threat to their sovereignty. It tells you that the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the rules-based order that has lifted many of these nations out of poverty over the last 70 years, resonates with people. They want the freedom to choose to be with the United States. And they know darn well that we’re not trying to restrict their trade because our own economic posture with China is deeply intertwined.
You mentioned China is using its economy to grab influence throughout the region. When these countries come to the United States, how does it counter what China is essentially putting forward, which includes financial incentives for these countries?
People in the region will frequently cite that China’s their No. 1 trading partner. There’s no doubt about it. They do recognize that the United States is actually the No. 1 when it comes to foreign direct investment in many of these other countries, on an order of magnitude of 10 times of what China puts into these other countries. And I’ve heard in my travels that trade is like dating and direct investment is like marriage, and our partners and allies in the region respect that.
The other aspect is a free enterprise capitalist approach. They know that approach over the last 70 years has lifted billions out of poverty and others into prosperity across Southeast Asia, Asia and indeed China. I think the passage of the [the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development] Act last year is an important vehicle that helps release that private enterprise and capital investment. That is one of those things that’ll take us on that way.
Are there attempts by the U.S. to ask allies in the region to trim connections to China, to reduce reliance on China?
We’re not asking people to choose between us and China. Do our allies and partners seek out our assistance for advice on security issues, diplomatic issues? The code of conduct in the South China Sea, for example, is one. Yeah, they certainly do because they want to be able to go into these things eyes wide open. It’s part of the principles of free and open — they want open and transparent agreements, and they solicit our advice to make sure that happens. That’s not necessarily going to prevent us from them having a discussion with China about a code of conduct, but we can certainly help approach it in a way that helps them preserve their sovereignty, and really international law, going forward.
What are the United States’ primary investments in countering what’s been described as a military surge by China?
Space force, space capabilities going forward, that’s one. Integrated air and missile defense. Fifth-gen fighters arriving in the region now — Japan, Korea. That’s another aspect. Getting into the business of long-range precision fires for the United States is a very important element of this. Trying to put life to all the service concepts, from multidomain operations to distributed maritime operations going forward — knit that together into a joint war-fighting construct that would be effective in the region. That’s all starting to come together.
Where would you like to see more investment if you could get Congress to provide the funding?
Well, certainly I would say that China is the strategic challenge to this nation for the 21st century. And what we’ve been focused on over the last 15, 18 years has been counterinsurgency and constabulary operations in Southwest Asia. And I talked about some of the capabilities that I thought we needed to get after, and those are the kinds of things that we need to continue to invest in, in order to take on this challenge.
Does the United States have enough funding for that at this point in time?
Well, we’re in the discussion about the ’21 budget right now. I have to see how that comes together.
What about the state of the naval fleet? Is the U.S. in a position to counter China by sea?
It’s been the position of the administration that 355 [ships] is the force structure that we should be aiming for going forward. I’m fully in support of that. I was quite pleased to see this contract signed here in the last two weeks for the Virginia-class Block V submarines going forward. It’s a key part of where our advantage remains large, and we want to continue to take advantage of that and the other capabilities the Navy’s producing.
Do you think the U.S. will ever get to 355?
It’s going to take resources to do it, but we’ve seen just in the last few weeks a reaffirmation by the acting secretary of the Navy that 355 is our objective.
Aircraft carriers have been a big topic of discussion lately. What will be the role of the aircraft carrier in five or 10 years? How about beyond that?
We need to continue to invest in the capability, which involves range. We need to continue to invest in the protection of those assets, which includes electronic measures, directed energy, modifications also to the air wing as well, some deception techniques, and so on. The large carrier has really served us well for World War II. It is going to for the extent of my lifetime, certainly, as well.
The Indo-Pacific region involves a lot of threats beyond China. What would you call the top threats in the region?
The most immediate challenge is going to remain North Korea. And until we get a final, fully verifiable denuclearized peninsula, it’s going to remain my most immediate concern. We’re watching developments here as we get to the end of the year and the very transparent threats that North Korea has been putting into the press. And it’s my responsibility for two things. One, to ensure the readiness of the forces. It’s something that the secretary of defense and I talked about this week here at the forum. And secondly, is to help facilitate this potential dialogue going forward, to allow the room for diplomacy where it needs to happen.
We also continue to see Russia act like a spoiler in the region. The challenges for us aren’t as profound as they are, I would say, in Eurasia and Eastern Europe, but we are seeing Russia advance their military operations in the region. They’ve flown bombers around Taiwan. They’ve flown bombers around Japan this year. They did a co-bomber flight with [China] in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. They sent a surface task group, basically from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Panama Canal, and it passed through the Hawaiian [exclusive economic zone]. So we’re seeing more of those challenges as well.
In general, NATO has primarily focused in recent years on Russia. Some members argue that NATO doesn’t make enough of an effort elsewhere in the world in terms of countering other threats. Is there enough of a cooperation with NATO in terms of the Indo-Pacific region?
You don’t see NATO formations out here, per se. What you see is elements of NATO. So the French, of course, are very engaged out here. They have interests in the Pacific. Indeed, you know French Polynesia and New Caledonia. They’ve got a commander in Tahiti, a two-star headquarters there. And the French have naval forces and air forces that operate in the region. The U.K. as well, is operating in the region during the course of last year, and I suspect that we’ll see more of them in the Indo-Pacific, too.
Certainly there’s room, I think, for NATO. You’ve heard the [U.S. defense] secretary today [Dec. 7] announce that NATO had agreed, at this most recent ministerial, that they would consider China as one of the things that they need to work on together. We’ll see where that takes us over time.
Jill Aitoro was editor of Defense News. She was also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brought over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.