US Indo-Pacific Defence Initiative: What’s really going on ?

Jan 17, 2021

The ritual analysis of the departing President’s report card does not record many positives for Trump’s strategic policy management in areas most vital to Australia. The key regional issues have been passed on to President-elect Biden whose immediate challenge will be to craft some coherent whole of government policy from the abundance of ideas currently being pushed by a variety of “experts”, think tanks, interest groups and factions within the Democrats.

This is the context against which the ABC’s “exclusive” early release of a “Secret” US planning paper must be considered – more for the timing of the release than for its substance.

In the Trump presidency, his often deliberate disregard of such papers has been no secret. Its release just days before the end of his tenure was meant to embarrass Trump but clearly, its main target was to try to force President-elect Biden’s hand in the development of his approach to China and the region. It contained very little new evidence by way of substance though Malcolm Turnbull will be happy to extol its apparent claim about the influence Australia, under his leadership, had over it.

(Since drafting this, National Security Advisor O’Brien has penned a two-page letter in a blatant ex post facto attempt to refute the paper’s allegations of Trump’s dereliction in this area. He argued that a comprehensive strategic policy for the region had been approved by Trump in 2017 – under the beguiling title “The Framework”.

Surprisingly, in researching the following since Obama’s time, I did not come across any reference to such a policy in White House statements, Pentagon or State briefings, very detailed and extensive Congressional hearings or the media. And, of course, there has been little indication of any significant repairing of State’s resources decimated by the Trump administration).

Objectively, the ABC paper forms part of a long and chequered path of US official and academic thinking about how to manage its defence relationship with China and the region. Along with the more recent debate about the Indo Pacific Defense Initiative, it is another page in the requisite primer of how government works (or does not) in the US – all so different to the Australian context.

Too often commentators focus only on the plethora of jargon and acronyms associated with policymaking in the US and not enough on the funding actually authorised for its implementation for which the Congress plays such an influential role. That is why legislation like the annual omnibus National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is such a key cog in the wheel of the US government.

Though President Obama’s “pivot” initiative was clothed in strategic double talk, its origins were largely budgetary in what was hoped would be a post-Iraq world. It was also a time when Pacific Command (PACOM) and the Pentagon became seriously concerned about the vulnerability of its forces and forward bases in the Western Pacific.

Burden sharing became a key concern – as Australia discovered in the heady days leading to Obama’s visit to Australia and Julia Gillard’s acceptance of the US Marine rotation through Darwin and accompanying development of our northern airbases to accommodate USAF visit etc. PACOM became Indo Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) to cover the gap between the India-Pakistan border and Diego Garcia, but the hyped “pivot” did little to change the strategic situation as Trump settled in. As one commentator noted, “words outpaced deeds and funds, in particular, remained short”.

In 2017, Senator McCain – then Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee – proposed the “Indo Pacific Stability Initiative” which would fund then still PACOM with US$41.5 billion annually for 5 years to strengthen its warfighting capability. This was sidelined but in 2019 Congress mandated that the Chief of INDOPACOM submit to it a report of the resources needed through until 2026 to meet its operational requirements. This reflected some serious concern within the Congress about the lack of priority the White House and Pentagon were giving to INDOPACOM’s funding needs.

This in turn mandated an annual report direct to Congress (“Regain the Advantage”) to ensure appropriate funding was being provided. It was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that is approved annually by the Congress which has become a vehicle for an extraordinary number of ancillary policy issues and parochial horse-trading. In the broad, this was to be patterned on the 2014 European Defense Initiative (EDI) following the Russian occupation of the Crimea.

The first report ‘Inside INDOPACOM’s $20 billion wish list to deter China and why Congress may approve it’ sought US$6 billion for 2021 and the remainder in the next 6 years. Even in its unclassified form, the report pulled few punches about the inadequacies of the current scene – especially the vulnerability of Guam and US naval forces to already existing Chinese capability and the technological gaps which were emerging. The report then formed part of the extensive discussions of NDAA 2021 in the Armed Services Committees of both houses.

Although the funding being sought by INDOPACOM was almost negligible in the overall NDAA 2021, each Committee generally accepted the urgency of the need but came up with different solutions reflecting (not unexpectedly, the partisan views of the two chairs).

The Democrats broadly accepted the INDOPACOM report but appeared keener to build a “whole of government” response to China with substantial increases to funding for State and Homeland Security. In this, they were probably reflecting the strong policy advice coming out of the Biden team that the military response alone would just not be enough. Kathleen Hicks, whom Biden has since nominated as Deputy Secretary of Defense, set out this argument elegantly in a recent Foreign Affairs article ‘Getting to Less – The truth about Defense spending’.

Ironically, Trump himself has often echoed his concerns that leaders at the Pentagon “want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” In the Senate, there seemed to be more concern about weapons and resources. In the end, the two went into discussion with the Government on what they then named the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative”.

Eventually, agreement on NDAA 2021 emerged which set out that it “will enhance budgetary transparency and oversight, focus resources on key military capability gaps, reassure U.S. allies and partners, and bolster the credibility of American deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.” The title changed to ‘IndoPacific Defense Initiative’ (IDI) with 2021 funding of US$2.5 billion – significantly less than the Government had been seeking. Of course, there were substantial other funds spread through the NDAA targeted at China and the region. This NDAA was vetoed by Trump at a very late stage which, in turn, the Congress overrode – the first time in the Trump Presidency. Though that act by Congress received widespread media coverage, Trump’s letter explaining his opposition to the Bill contained not a word about the cuts which the Congress had made to funding for IDI. His complaints were largely about the removal of Confederate names from military bases and ships to his desire to rein in IT companies.

Since Biden’s election, the leadership of the Pentagon has been in chaos with Trump effectively firing Defense Secretary Esper and others and replacing them with “trusties”. The departing Secretary of the Navy (Braithwaite) also announced unexpectedly the revival of the 1st Fleet to cover the area from Taiwan through to the western Indian Ocean. This was was clearly another attempt by Trump and his supporters to force Biden’s hand after he takes over. How far the whole idea had been thought through and agreed remains very unclear. Key questions like where the fleet might be based, where it will get its ships from and how it will fit into the Command structure of the 7th Fleet based in Japan and INDOPACOM have yet to be declared. And, not the least; What does Biden think about it?

In the end, the key factor in all the above will be the path Biden chooses to pursue with China and on which he is receiving volumes of proposed approaches. Going back to his original essay on foreign policy, one should not forget the importance he attached to his own personal contact and experience with Xi and other Chinese leaders. It would not be at all surprising that, despite the level of public rhetoric, he has had and some arms-length contact with Beijing in recent months.

But what are the implications for Australia? It is very early days for the Biden administration, but we should not forget that Australians have some unique stake in the game from the very senior ADF officers and personnel embedded in IndoPacom. Are they sufficiently shielded from US control in the event that some action is taken by Trump or his successor that Canberra could not avoid parting company with the US over – such as Taiwan? Some of us have been alerting our politicians to that possibility for many years now.

If Biden decides to proceed with the IDI there are bound to be other important issues for Australia. Darwin has already been rumoured as a possible base for the 1st Fleet as the USN’s interest in Singapore appears to have been roundly rebuffed. And what about Stirling where in Gillard times the US had been pushing to homeport a nuclear carrier group? Then there is the issue of anti-missile defences which INDOPACOM has as a high priority – not only for Guam. Let us not forget that Pine Gap would be a prime target for a missile attack. And so the list will grow.

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