BY JESSE JOHNSON, STAFF WRITER
The U.S. on Tuesday declassified a national security document that reveals details of the Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan’s role as well as a plan to “deny,” “defend” and “dominate” China in the western Pacific.
Observers said the document’s release, just days before Donald Trump hands over the White House keys to President-elect Joe Biden and his team, may have been intended to bind the new president to the vision it laid out for the region while reassuring allies of a continued U.S. presence.
The rare decision to release and declassify the strategy, which provided the “overarching strategic guidance” for U.S. actions in the region, “demonstrates, with transparency, America’s strategic commitments to the Indo-Pacific and to our allies and partners,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement accompanying it.
Typically, such documents remain classified for 30 years.
The statement and document itself also appeared to highlight the outsize role Japan played in its formation and after, touting the “strategic resonance” of Tokyo’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept and noting that the “growing alignment of strategic approaches in the region is perhaps nowhere more noteworthy than in the growth of the U.S.-Japan alliance during the last four years.”
Experts said these words made clear that allies, including Tokyo, had played a crucial role in the strategy’s creation.
“This confirms that U.S. strategic policy in the Indo-Pacific was in substantial part informed and driven by allies and partners, especially Japan, Australia and India,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, wrote in an analysis for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.
Drafted throughout 2017 and formally endorsed by Trump early the following year, the 10 partially redacted pages set out the United States’ strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific, with much of it focusing on China.
This included what was listed as the top national security challenge: “How to maintain U.S. strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region and promote a liberal economic order while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence.”
According to the document, one part of the strategy commits to “devise and implement a defense strategy capable of, but not limited to: (1) denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict; (2) defending the first island chain nations, including Taiwan; and (3) dominating all domains outside the first island chain.”
The so-called first island chain refers to islands stretching from the Kurils, the Japanese main islands and the Ryukyus to Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Experts say the chain of Pacific islands that ring in China are seen by some in Beijing as a natural barrier that contains the country and its military.
In a worrying trend for Tokyo, China has effectively regularized military operations that punch through the first island chain, including activities that send warplanes and warships near Taiwan and Japanese territory.
Last year alone saw Chinese warplanes cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait a record number of times, while Chinese vessels also approached the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands more than 300 times, another record. The tiny islets in the East China Sea are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu.
On the U.S.-Japan alliance, the document also mentioned the twin goals of empowering Tokyo “to become a regionally integrated, technologically advanced pillar of the Indo-Pacific security architecture” and assisting in the modernization of the Self-Defense Forces.
The document also spoke of the need to align the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy with those of Australia, India and Japan, as well as of the need for deepening trilateral cooperation with Japan and Australia, and a quadrilateral security relationship, or “Quad,” with India — all moves that have been made since the strategy was drafted.
Australian National University’s Medcalf said that although the strategy did not explicitly mention it, the document “appears to acknowledge that an effective American regional policy is as much about following as leading.”
“This means steady support for allies and partners, rather than the pursuit of some shaky all-round U.S. primacy,” he said.
Some, however, said they saw little new in the document or how it would reassure American allies. Skeptics said that the decision to declassify now is an obvious push for policy continuity amid concerns that a Biden administration may not yet be committed to challenging China’s bid for dominance as strongly as Trump.
“It would be one thing if there was a secret unified field theory that explained the caprice of Trump’s Asia policy, but this is just a bunch of banal, bureaucratic buzzwords,” said Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington. “The generous interpretation is that the administration is trying to tie Biden’s hands by releasing this now, but it seems like a poor strategy because there’s nothing in it that would constrain Biden.”
But Medcalf said the declassified framework would have enduring value as the beginning of a whole-of-government blueprint for handling the U.S. strategic rivalry with China.
“It’s surely no bad thing to salvage the few achievements of an otherwise grim era in American foreign policy, while laying down some markers for the incoming administration,” he said.