Since 2017, the United States government has released a few reports and fact sheets on its new Indo-Pacific Strategy. It’s impossible to analyse these texts and the speeches by high officials of the U.S. government because they are largely made up of empty phrases. For instance, what does the U.S. mean when it says that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is going to promote “free, fair, and reciprocal trade”? Each of these terms — ‘free’, ‘fair’, and ‘reciprocal’ — need elaboration. But over hundreds of pages there is no explanation of any of these phrases. Buried in these documents is a much deeper agenda of the U.S. government: to use three large Asian states — Australia, India, and Japan — to isolate China. There is nothing else to it.
Scale of Chinese investment
The U.S. government has made it clear that what it finds most objectionable is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has signed on more than 70 countries in the world. Adopted in 2013, the BRI is intended as a mechanism to end China’s reliance upon the markets of the West and to develop new markets in other continents; it is also intended to use China’s massive surpluses to build infrastructure in key parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2027, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley, China will spend about $1.3 trillion on this ambitious construction project. Even Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.S., has made the BRI one of the cornerstones of its Saudi Vision 2030 plan. While China has invested $68 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $10 billion in the port itself.
The scale of Chinese investment, and the participation of a range of countries with different political identities in the BRI, is staggering. At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in July 2018, which was hosted by the U.S. government — tellingly in Washington D.C. — the U.S. bragged that it has spent $2.9 billion through the Department of State and the USAID (United States Agency for International Development). It has lined up hundreds of millions of dollars more through its U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation . If you add up all the money that the U.S. intends to spend for economic projects, it is still a fraction of the amount spent by China. There is no appetite in Washington, D.C., with its ‘America First’ attitude, to funnel more money towards investments in the region currently being built by the BRI.
It appears as if U.S. investments will come only with military claims. Nepal is currently debating whether it should accept $500 million from an MCC grant; will this money mean that the Nepali government would have to allow U.S. troops and U.S. bases in the country? This would be objectionable to the Communist government in Kathmandu. A few years ago, Nepal discovered a large amount of uranium in Mustang, near the Nepal-China border; this has certainly motivated U.S. interest in Nepal’s economy. If the U.S. money comes with U.S. military presence, this will create a serious flashpoint in the Himalayas.
Unable to outspend the Chinese, the U.S. government is making a rhetorical argument that it has more respect for “transparency, human rights, and democratic values” than China, which “practices repression at home and abroad” (‘A Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, November 2019). Documents such as these are plainly rhetorical. It is hard to imagine the U.S. being “transparent” with its trade deals. It is equally hard to imagine the U.S. being able to argue that it would not put countries into debt. Libraries are filled with documents that show how the U.S. government enabled a massive Third World debt crisis in the 1980s, which was then used by the U.S.-driven International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programs to strangle countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This history is alive, and it makes a mockery of the U.S.’s attempt to say that its own approach is superior to that of China’s.
Apart from that, the U.S. government has already indicated that it is uninterested in multilateral deals — it withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, for instance. Australia and Japan shrugged, and then put their energy into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which sidelines the U.S.
In May 2018, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, a symbolic gesture that provides a military aspect to the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The U.S. government has made it clear that for all its talk of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, what it actually wants is an Indo-Pacific with fewer Chinese ships and more U.S. warships. Just before this renaming, the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2017 noted that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region”, and so the Indo-Pacific Strategy intends for the U.S. to fight for its dominance in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and in the Asian rim. This is a very dangerous war that the U.S. seeks to impose on Asia.
As the military aspect of the Strategy increased, both Australia and Japan edged away from full-scale adoption of the U.S. project. Japan has begun to use the term “Indo-Pacific” without the word “Strategy”, while Australia has signed onto a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China. Only India remains loyal to the agenda set by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has arrived here with nothing but a bag full of tricks. In all the documents released by the U.S. government and in all the speeches by officials, there is no discussion of the strategy to contain China. There is only rhetoric that skates into belligerent territory.
India would be advised to study the U.S. project rather than jump into it eagerly. Room for an independent foreign policy for India is already narrowed, and room for an independent trade policy is equally suffocated. To remain the subordinate ally of the U.S. suggests that India will miss an opportunity to be part of a reshaped Asia.
Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research