Jan 12, 2021 - World

Newly declassified report lays out U.S. strategy in Asia

Illustration of a blueprint with a map of China on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration has declassified a report which lays out its Indo-Pacific strategy, including “accelerating India’s rise,” blocking China from establishing “illiberal spheres of influence,” and maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy” in the region, according to a copy viewed by Axios.

Why it matters: The strategy laid out in the ten-page report, written in early 2018, has guided the U.S. approach to China, India, North Korea and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region for the past three years. Its release sheds light on the geopolitical and security challenges soon to be inherited by the Biden administration.

China is the primary state actor of concern outlined in the document, followed by North Korea. The strategy emphasizes countering China's growing influence abroad by seeking strategic alignment with allies and partners, upholding a "liberal economic order" in the region, and working to "inoculate" the U.S. and its partners against China's intelligence activities.

  • The strategy also outlines a major expansion of military, intelligence, and diplomatic support to India as the primary regional counterweight to China — an approach which is likely to raise eyebrows in Beijing and Islamabad.

What they're saying: "The declassification of the Framework today demonstrates, with transparency, America’s strategic commitments to the Indo-Pacific and to our allies and partners in the region," wrote National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien in a memo dated Jan. 5, 2021 and included with the strategy document.

Breaking it down: The Trump administration has hewed closely to several of its stated objectives regarding China over the last three years, including:

  • Building an "international consensus that China's industrial policies and unfair trading practices are damaging the global trading system"
  • Expanding U.S. counterintelligence and law enforcement to counter China's intelligence activities in the U.S., and expanding intelligence sharing with allies to help them do the same.
  • Developing military and asymmetric warfare strategies to help Taiwan in its long-standing, tense relationship with China.
  • Strengthening national security reviews of Chinese investments into sensitive U.S. sectors
  • Working with allies and partners to try to "prevent Chinese acquisition of military and strategic capabilities."

Yes, but: Some objectives faced headwinds.

  • The strategy repeatedly calls for greater U.S. engagement with countries in the region, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In some cases the U.S. actually pulled back from the region, including through Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and snubbing of ASEAN summits.
  • The goal of showcasing the benefits of American democratic values as a counterbalance to China in the region also suffered a major blow with the recent armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Those events prompted the resignation of one of the strategy's main authors, former deputy national security Matt Pottinger.

Of note: India forms an important cornerstone of the aptly-named Indo-Pacific strategy.

  • The document states that enhanced U.S. assistance and intelligence sharing should aid India in key areas of conflict with China, including over border disputes and water rights in the Himalayas. In 2020, India and China had their deadliest military skirmish along the border since 1967.
  • But the U.S.-India relationship is complex. During the cold war, India refused to squarely place itself in the Western camp, instead opting for leadership in the non-aligned movement. The U.S., meanwhile, often tilted towards Pakistan, India's historic arch-rival in South Asia.

Background: The Trump administration ushered in a new official framework for viewing China and India as part of the same strategic region, the "Indo-Pacific," beginning with its National Security Strategy in 2017.

  • The U.S. Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, in a move widely viewed as a response to China's rise.

Between the lines: Australia's experience with China strongly influenced the drafting of the 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy.

  • "In many ways they were ahead of the curve in understanding influence operations and interference in domestic systems," one senior U.S. official told me. "They were pioneers and we have to give a lot of credit to Australia."
  • The official singled out former Australian senior intelligence advisor John Garnaut for praise, and said a 2017 report on Chinese influence operations by New Zealand-based scholar Anne-Marie Brady had also influenced the U.S. strategy.

Go deeper: State Department releases blueprint for countering China.

Go deeper