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U.S. must ‘puncture’ China’s Asian dominance, declassified plan says

NEW YORK/SYDNEY/BEIJING — Days before leaving office, the Trump administration has declassified an internal document on its Indo-Pacific strategy that shows the principles under which it operated.


Unsurprisingly, it is heavily focused on the rise of China. It reveals how the administration tried to debunk Beijing’s narrative that China’s regional dominance was inevitable, and exhibits how the U.S. sought to maintain access to the most populous region of the world for economic reasons.


The U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was approved by President Donald Trump in February 2018 and classified by Matthew Pottinger, the then-National Security Council senior director for Asia. It was declassified last week by national security adviser Robert O’Brien, in the last days of the Trump administration, and published Tuesday.


In blunt wording not usually seen in public speeches, the document says that one of the top interests for the country in the Indo-Pacific is to “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.”


The top national security challenge noted in the document is China. It assumes that Beijing “aims to dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region” and exploit any resulting opportunities, and that it will “take increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan.”


The document lays out both hard power and soft power measures to counter the challenge.


In hard power, it says, Washington should devise a defense strategy that can deny Beijing dominance inside the “first island chain,” which includes Taiwan, Okinawa and the Philippines; defend “nations” within the chain, explicitly naming Taiwan; and dominate areas outside the chain.


The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit is seen aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in Okinawa, Japan. China seeks to keep American forces outside the “second island chain” that includes Japan. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Enabling Taiwan to develop defense capabilities that can ensure its “ability to engage China on its own terms” is another goal.


The goal is to break Beijing’s “anti-access/area denial” strategy, which aims to push American forces out of the East and South China seas within the first island chain. China also seeks to keep U.S. forces from approaching the “second island chain” in the western Pacific, which runs from southeastern Japan out to Guam and south to Indonesia.


In the soft power realm, the White House document suggests invigorating technical assistance to friendly governments to promote rule of law and civil institutions while “communicating the strings attached to China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure drive that seeks to connect Asia with Europe.


It calls for Washington to develop a robust public diplomacy capability which competes with China’s information campaigns and to “puncture the narrative that Chinese regional dominance is inevitable.”


On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian criticized the document, saying it “only serves to expose the malign intention of the U.S. to use its Indo-Pacific strategy to suppress and contain China and undermine regional peace and stability.”


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Washington has revealed its “malign intention” regarding its Indo-Pacific strategy.   © Reuters

Zhao also called the strategy a “serious breach of the U.S. government’s solemn commitment on Taiwan to China” and stated that Beijing will “resolutely defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”


The U.S. document calls for close cooperation with Japan, Australia and India, touching on the “Quad” security partnership, as well as deeper trilateral cooperation with Tokyo and Canberra and “empower[ing] Japan to become a pillar of the Indo-Pacific security architecture.”


Washington’s goals also include accelerating India’s ability to play a role in regional security, in part by building a “stronger foundation for defense cooperation.”


The U.S. should “offer support to India — through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels — to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China” in the Himalayas that flared up last year, the document said.


The section on North Korea frames the goal as convincing the regime of Kim Jong Un that “the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons.” The U.S. will look to maximize pressure through economic, diplomatic, intelligence and other means to “set the conditions for negotiations aimed at reversing its nuclear and missile programs,” it said.


Notably, the document makes no mention of human rights. 


The document was declassified 30 years earlier than it normally would be, according to Australia Broadcasting Corp. An expert cited by ABC suggested that the move is a signal by officials hoping to promote continuity under President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to take office next week.

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