Alexandria, VA.: In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines”, we speak with Col. David Maxwell (Ret.), a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. about the just released White House document, “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States”.
Among his many assignments and commands, Col. Maxwell was Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy (J5), the Chief of Staff for Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) and commanded 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Okinawa, Japan and later commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Philippines. His final assignment was serving on the military faculty teaching national security strategy at the National War College.
Following retirement from the Army he served as Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal.
Q: What is this document?
A: It is a specific strategy for the United States, focused on the Indo-Pacific. This is a public strategy to transmit our message to the region—and the world—on how we see the Indo-Pacific, how we intend to operate in the Indo-Pacific, and what goals and objectives we seek to achieve in the Indo-Pacific for ourselves, and for the mutual interests of our allies and partners.
Normally the White House will issue the National Security Strategy (NSS) first, and a regional strategy (such as this) would be a supporting element of the NSS. What’s really interesting is that this has come out before the NSS. Usually it’s an NSS, then supporting regional and defence strategies.
This is very thorough for a regional strategy. Going back through the history of these sorts of regional strategies, I can’t recall something this public and with this much emphasis. We are trying to send a message that we are prioritising the Indo-Pacific.
The primary target for the Strategy is the security apparatus—the military writ large, interagency, Treasury, USAID, State—but it also sends a strong message to our partners, allies, regional organisations, and competitors—China.
There is a clear articulation of the basic strategic construct of ends, ways, and means—and it lays them out very clearly. And then it actually provides guidance on ten lines of effort that really provides some meat to this and gives pretty good guidance. As a former military planner, I could make good use of this to develop supporting military plans across the spectrum of conflict. I find this very useful.
Q: What are the major themes of the Strategy?
A: Overall, the strategy builds on alliances as a core, then partnerships, then international organizations, specifically ASEAN, the Quad and AUKUS. And the key point is that this is consistent with our broader strategic approach in which we build on our single asymmetric strength—our network of alliances and partnerships.
China will perceive building these networks as countering China. China will interpret it that way even though we are talking about competing with China—and it’s realistic to say competing with China.
Another aspect of all of this, in addition to our core asymmetric strength, is that integrated deterrence will be key to our strategy and will connect to the defence strategy that is currently being staffed. Integrated deterrence means that we integrate all our activities across warfighting domains, from peacetime to grey zone to conflict to major war to ultimately—worst case—nuclear war.
The strategy doesn’t say it, but integrated deterrence has to do that along with alliances and partners. This integrated deterrence focuses on dissuading and defeating aggression and, as part of this strategy, we are going to undertake initiatives to both reinforce deterrence and to counter coercion.
That, to me, is a signal for China because we see China coercing nations with its debt trap diplomacy, its use of the Belt and Road Initiative to extend influence and its conduct of malign activities in the three warfares: psychological warfare, lawfare and media or public opinion warfare.
One of the positive things I like about it is really it has a global focus—Indo-Pacific, plus Euro-Atlantic. It seems to be taking a broad focus on this, which I think is necessary because the United States has global interests. We are expecting a huge shift to the Indo-Pacific, but we need to stay engaged in the Middle East, Europe, Africa.
Q: What does it say about India?
A: There are specific things about India that are very strong. As it talks about the core of our alliances, it specifically addresses the Quad, and also says a specific objective of the strategy is to “Support India’s continued rise and regional leadership”.
That’s really important. That’s a key part of our strategy; we recognize that our interests align in so many areas. It is actually one of the ten lines of effort. Another is “Deliver on the Quad”.
This is a recognition that India is a likeminded partner and a leader in Asia and Indian Ocean, with connections throughout South Asia and globally.
Q: Any elements stand out?
A: The thing that will be a lightning rod is the discussion about Taiwan—about helping to defend Taiwan, but also paying homage to the One China policy.
[“We will also work with partners inside and outside of the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people. As we do so, our approach remains consistent with our One China policy and our longstanding commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.”]
I’m sure it is written that way so as to deescalate tensions with China. Everything that came before that section talks about alliance building, building Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities—and really this is the key point—ensuring an environment in which Taiwan’s futures is determined peacefully by Taiwan’s people.
In the US view this is consistent with One China policy commitments. It’ll be interesting to see how China responds. I’m sure it won’t be positive.
As for China, our main competitor is never identified as a competitor, or adversary, or enemy and only referred once as a “rival”. That’s really interesting because, even though it talks about the important things—values, what we intend to do, what we want to see, e.g., the international rules based order—it also recognises China’s intent to shape things in its own interest. That is the essence of the rivalry—the different values and vision between the US and China,
Q: What’s your overall assessment?
A: It’s too early to judge its efficacy but on first assessment there is a lot of goodness in this and, as a planner, I could make use of this throughout the Indo-Pacific. Planners don’t like to guess what the boss wants and this gives sufficient guidance to plan. It’s a really transparent message articulating what we believe in, what we stand for, what we intend to do.
One of negative criticisms, common with most strategies, is that it doesn’t clearly articulate priorities. It is very broad and aspirational, but it provides a surprisingly good level of detailed guidance within it that could be very useful to planners.
Pundits and analysts could criticise a lot of it. There are those who will want less detail, and those who will want more. For me there is sufficient detail so that I can understand the intention of the Administration, but it is broad enough to give flexibility to the interagency and embassies to operate with a solid but broad intent. I hope that every country team, every embassy, in the Indo-Pacific will, and must, use this to shape their country team’s strategic plan while the military develops it supporting plans.
But the proof is in the pudding. The problem is strategies are often put on the shelf and simply admired. A lot of times they just end up on briefing slides and as talking points. Civilian departments don’t take them like orders. We need to see if this will be the base document and will it be applied strategically, operationally, and tactically.
That will be in the coming years. A strategy is only as good as what we do in actual execution. Is this strategy executable? And are we going to back it up to achieve the goals and strategies? What we actually end up doing is the real message and the real strategy.