Secret Pacific Strategy Called for Stronger India to Counter China

The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, declassified Jan. 13, seeks to promote India’s military and economic strength as a counter to China, while trying to keep traditional U.S. regional allies in the fold. It revolves around blunting China’s rising influence, and aims to bolster the militaries of Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea with better arms, intelligence sharing, and common research and development, while getting those countries to shoulder a greater share of the Indo-Pacific defense burden.

In an accompanying statement from the White House, National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien said declassifying the document—which has some sections redacted—is meant to illustrate the administration’s transparency and commitment to partners in the region. The document was labeled “Secret/NOFORN” before the declassification, marking it as the least sensitive of classified documents.

O’Brien called the “growing rivalry between free and repressive visions of the future” the “most consequential challenge to the interests of the U.S.” China, he said, is “increasingly pressuring” Indo-Pacific nations “to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a ‘common destiny’ envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party,” while the U.S. seeks only to help those aspiring to “a free and open Indo-Pacific” to preserve and protect their sovereignty.

The “top interests” of the U.S. in the region are to protect the homeland; preserve military, diplomatic, and economic access to the Indo-Pacific; enhance the “credibility and effectiveness” of allies; and “maintain U.S. primacy in the region,” while protecting core American values at home.

Militarily, the U.S. seeks to deter China from attacking the U.S. and its allies, and to develop means to counter and defeat China “across the spectrum of conflict.”

The three-pronged military strategy is to deny China “sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict,” then defend first-island-chain nations, and thirdly to dominate “all domains outside the first island chain.”

Assumptions on which the overall strategy was based include the “grave threat” posed by North Korean nuclear weapons and its “stated intention of subjugating” South Korea. Proliferation of weapons and increased defense spending throughout the Indo-Pacific were also assumed as a response to Chinese, as was persistent and increasing competition between the U.S. and China.

The strategy called out China’s efforts to steal both military and commercial technology, and its plan to seek dominance of “artificial intelligence and bio-genetics” and “harness them in the service authoritarianism.” Such dominance would pose “profound challenges to free societies,” according to the document. China’s “digital surveillance, information controls, and influence operations” are also seen as damaging U.S. efforts to promote its values and interests, not only in the Indo-Pacific, but worldwide.

The strategy notes China’s “increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan.” It aims to help Taiwan develop “an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities” to let it engage China “on its own terms.”

However, the document soft-pedals Russia as “a marginal player” in the region, relative to the U.S., India, and China.

A main “action” item is to convince the Kim Jong Un regime that “the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons,” and do so by pressuring Pyonyang  with diplomatic, military, and economic means, as well as through “law enforcement, intelligence, and information tools.” The goal is to “cripple North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs, choke off currency flows, weaken the regime,” and set conditions for negotiating the reversal of its nuclear and missile programs.  

The strategy recommends strengthening the militaries of Australia, India, Japan, and Korea with increased arms sales and arms development cooperation. It also seeks a greater out-of-area role for both Japan and Korea, whose defense forces largely restrict themselves to domestic defense. Japan, particularly, will be encouraged to become “regionally integrated” as a “technologically advanced pillar” of the Indo-Pacific security architecture.

The U.S. aims for a “quadrilateral security framework” with the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia as the “principal hubs,” seeking particularly a “modernization of Japan’s Self-Defense Force.” The U.S. also seeks to reinvigorate alliances with the Philippines and Thailand, to “strengthen their role in upholding a rules-based order.” It sees Myanmar—which the strategy refers to by its old name of Burma—as becoming a potential ally as well, promoting and supporting that country’s “transition to democracy.”  

Throughout the region, the U.S. wants its allies large and small to contribute more to peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, disaster response, and “global health.”

Strengthening India is a common theme of the strategy, aiming to “accelerate India’s rise,” so that it becomes a “net provider of security and a major defense partner.” A “strong Indian military” should be able to “effectively collaborate” with the U.S., and its ground forces can provide a strong counter to China. The strategy says the U.S. wants to “expand our defense trade” with India and transfer technology to it that will enhance its capabilities as an ally.

Toward that end, the U.S. wants to help India engage militarily “beyond the Indian Ocean,” and assist its efforts toward “domestic economic reform.” The U.S. plans to provide military, diplomatic, and intelligence assistance to India, to help with “border disputes with China and access to water, including the Brahmaputra and other rivers facing diversion by China.” The U.S. would work with India and Japan to finance projects that “enhance regional connectivity between India and countries of the region.”

The U.S. also aims to “strengthen the capacity of emerging partners” in South Asia, to include Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh. The U.S. hopes to help create a “maritime information fusion center” including these nations, to surveil the Indian Ocean.

The strategy plans an information campaign to thwart China’s “unfair trading practices” that “freeze out foreign competition” and highlight the “strings attached” with participation in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

It aims to work closely with allies and “like-minded countries” to “prevent Chinese acquisition of military and strategic capabilities,” and prevent China from using venture capital to buy up innovative companies.

The strategy also plans an information campaign targeted to governments, businesses, and universities, Chinese overseas students, news media, and general citizenry “about China’s coercive behavior and influence operations around the globe.” The U.S. seeks to invest “in capabilities [redacted] that promote uncensored communication between the Chinese people.”