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What Is the U.S. Military’s Role in the Indo-Pacific? To Take a Back Seat

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan.

“There are two winds in the world today, the East Wind and the West Wind. There is a Chinese saying, “Either the East Wind prevails over the West and or the West Wind prevails over the East Wind.” I believe it is characteristic of the situation today that the East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind.” – Mao Ze Dong

The U.S military is in an identity crisis. The Forever Wars are ending, and American leadership is signaling the resurgence of strategic great-power competition.

The U.S. over the last century has built one of the most powerful militaries in the world, with a defense budget that towers over other nations. But revisionist states including the People’s Republic of China do not directly challenge the might of the U.S. military – they play a different game. China builds its strategy around operations below the threshold of armed conflict. Beijing achieves war-like goals and objectives by other means, effectively frustrating militaries who play along the traditional continuum of conflict.

China has remarkably gained control of key terrain in the South China Sea without any direct conflict, and continues its outward expansion. Whole-of-government expansion strategies such as the Belt and Road Initiative have increased China’s ability for global power projection. Without resorting to war, China has impressively harmonized all elements of national power in executing its strategy, demonstrating innovative, creative ways to achieve its objectives. China’s effective and steady rise has left the U.S. military with limited options to counter it.

With over two decades of experience, the U.S. military is exceptionally proficient in counterinsurgency operations, dominating the environment and typically enjoying control over all domains during operations with somewhat clear rules of engagements. But the global environment is rapidly changing. Joint Doctrine Note 1-19 recognizes the need for the Joint Force to apply a less military-heavy model to deal with geopolitical rivals such as China. The framework proposed is a competition continuum that “describes a world of enduring competition conducted through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict.” This kind of competition requires a more nuanced approach to military planning and operations. It leaves the greatest military in the world looking for ways to compete and cooperate below the threshold of armed conflict.

One opportunity can be found in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known colloquially as the “Quad,” is a forum for the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia to promote intergovernmental security and cooperation. Ideally, it offers a platform for the U.S. to work with other global powers to shape competitive strategies. The Quad is fragile, however, and it has fallen apart many times over the years. China attacks the concept in all its expressions, labeling it as an aggressive U.S. attempt to create an Asian NATO. That’s a narrative China can return to if the Quad is militarized.

The U.S. military is being called on to exercise patience and embrace a new role in global competition: to support and allow the other elements of national power to lead the way in forums like the Quad. The U.S. Military is accustomed to leading; playing a support role is a new idea. The Quad offers an opportunity for the U.S. military to embrace this new role, and its actions could define competition in the Indo-Pacific for years to come.

China threatens international order. Its authoritarian Communist regime seeks to revise the current world order to its own benefit, threatening Asia and the international commons.

Nations like the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia have dedicated increasing effort and resources to preserve the international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. But supporting that order while facing down China is a delicate act. Nations coordinate loosely to keep the region free and open, but all of them cooperate at some level with China as well, especially economically. No one wants a conflict with Beijing, but countries cannot just sit back and watch as China rewrites the regional order through malign and coercive actions. Going forward, the U.S. military’s interactions with the Quad will do much to characterize great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

The Evolution of the Quad

In December 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean resulted in a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people across 14 countries. It wreaked havoc and destruction in coastal areas of Southeast Asia, primarily in Indonesia. Leading maritime powers in the region – India, Australia, Japan, and the United States – conducted ad-hoc operations providing much-needed relief to the affected areas. This 2004-2005 Tsunami Core Group demonstrated the power and effectiveness of cooperation and collaboration on regional issues. This event set the conditions for the birth of the Quad.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila 2007, then-Vice President Dick Cheney met with the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia, giving rise to conversations about a potential Quad grouping. In September of the same year, the Malabar maritime exercise conducted in the Bay of Bengal brought together 25 ships and 20,000 personnel from the Quad countries and Singapore. China saw this as direct military deterrence aimed at containing Beijing, and began an effort to dismantle the nascent Quad.

The maritime exercise coupled with the diplomatic meetings of these Indo-Pacific democracies sparked a harsh rebuke from China. In the spring of 2007, China issued demarches to Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S., demanding to know the objectives of the so-called Quad and objecting to its very existence. It took other actions against the governments, such as denying visas and imposing economic restrictions. China actively messaged that the Quad countries were provoking China and trying to contain it by creating an Asian NATO.

By late 2007, most Quad countries adjusted their messaging posture in what seemed to be a measure of appeasement towards China, and the nascent Quad lost any momentum. In his visit to China, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson reassured Beijing that a “so-called quadrilateral dialogue with India is not something that we are pursuing.” The Indian foreign minister likewise stressed that there was no Quad alliance, and that India would not pursue anything further. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama referenced the Quad as a positive forum in speeches. After the election, however, the new Obama administration did not appear willing to risk Chinese ire by pushing the Quad forward. Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a primary supporter of the Quad, told the Indian parliament during a speech that there would be a “confluence of two seas,” and the nations needed to prevent the rise of regional hegemony. But Abe soon announced he would step down as prime minister, and the concept of the Quad lay dormant for the next decade.

Although the Quad had lost momentum, the imperative for cooperation only grew. Regional issues primarily instigated by an increasingly emboldened PRC called for cooperation among like-minded partners. In 2011, U.S. and Indian diplomats proposed establishing a trilateral meeting between Japan, India, and the U.S. to discuss regional and global issues. The dialogue proceeded, with State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan leading the U.S. team. Members took great care to ensure the dialogue was perceived not as a move to contain China, but rather to advance shared values. In 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the groups at a ministerial level, promoting the need to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific region to advance shared interests. This meeting centered around upholding international law, peaceful dispute settlements, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce. The group highlighted the South China Sea as an area of growing concern.

Later in 2015, Australia, Japan, and India held their first-ever trilateral meetings with senior-level ministers. The ministers signaled the need for closer security ties, joint naval exercises, and strengthening military relationships. They highlighted China’s growing maritime assertiveness and its construction of artificial islands in disputed territories. Once again, these meetings highlighted the possibility of using maritime exercises to strengthen the nations’ resolve and support shared interests. The result was the regular inclusion of Japanese forces in the Malabar maritime exercises.

Tensions between India and China heightened in the summer of 2017 at the Doklam trijunction, where China engaged in a border standoff with India for almost three months as the PRC sought to advance its One Belt One Road infrastructure development.

Ten years after the first meeting, senior officials from all four countries met again in Manila in 2017. The group publicly acknowledged the priority of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific with seven supporting themes: the rules-based order in Asia; freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons; respect for international law; enhancing connectivity;maritime security; the North Korean threat; nonproliferation; and terrorism. After the meeting, all four countries released individual statements. Each country emphasized specific priorities but aligned on the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific and on support for the international rules-based order.


Image Credit: Author.

This chart shows that although the nations have divergent domestic and external interests, they unified to preserve a rules-based order in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked that Australia should join in the U.S.-India-Japan engagements. Similarly, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono proposed a top-level diplomatic dialogue among the four nations to promote free trade and defense cooperation. In his speech, Kono directly highlighted the need for free and open seas while also mentioning concerns regarding China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. At the same time, Chinese influence efforts in Australia were gaining increased awareness – several politicians were found to have accepted money from the Chinese Communist Party. This led to Australia adopting a foreign interference law in 2018, highlighting the concern over the PRC’s aggressive and coercive actions. Meanwhile, Japan observed a heightened level of assertive Chinese actions and demonstrations near the Senkaku Islands. China increased its gray-zone activities using Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels, pushing Japanese fishing boats out of the area and sparking domestic concern over increased Chinese encroachment and violation of international laws.

These actions undermining the international rules-based order appeared to be reducing Quad countries’ hesitation to incur Beijing’s displeasure. By 2020, tensions on the Sino-Indian border escalated into the first fatal confrontation there in nearly half a century, and India appeared to have overcome its previous reticence on Quad efforts by incorporating Australia into the November 2020 Malabar Naval exercise. For the first time since 2007, that exercise involved all Quad members. In March of 2021, the Quad gained further momentum and focus, as leaders from all four countries met to take shared action on three security challenges: Vaccine partnership, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies. The leaders established working groups to aim collective capacities at the region’s primary non-military threats. After a decade of careful balance, it is clear the Quad has been given purpose by the PRC’s aggressive actions. Cooperation has grown, but not with the military leading the way. Senior leaders from the four Quad countries met in person in September of 2021, during a summit focused around a gamut of issues running from connectivity and infrastructure, to fostering an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. This is not a military alliance – this is four nations with mutually supporting interests, pledging cooperation. While multilateral military operations are not an agenda item, there are numerous opportunities for the countries’ militaries to support and integrate their actions on these subjects.

In May 2022, leaders of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States met as formal members of the Quad. In a joint statement, the leaders expanded their commitment to promoting; the rule of law, freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states. The summit unveiled a new Indo-Pacific Partnership for maritime domain awareness, an initiative to provide partners to monitor their waters and shores fully. Over 18 years from the birth of the Quad, leaders from these four nations are united and sending a clear message to an aggressive PRC. This is not a military-focused message but a firm opposition to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo and support mutual interests and a free and open Indo-Pacific vision.

Sometimes, Big Changes Move Slowly

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” – Sun Tzu

The U.S. Department of Defense often outpaced the other elements of national power during the Forever Wars, conducting political, economic, and informational efforts in areas such as reconstruction, elections, and stability operations. The Quad is an opportunity for the military, but one that should not be overplayed. The military needs to do the unthinkable and take a back seat. It should exercise tactical patience, support other government agencies when ready, and position and preserve U.S. interests abroad. Uncoordinated aggressive moves risk escalation to the potential detriment of partners and allies, playing into the hands of China as they exercise their campaigns.

The U.S. military cannot be the leader in America’s competition against China. The military’s role here is to support other elements of national power, applying its vast experience in areas such as logistics and supply chains to support Washington’s desired objectives. This is not an easy task. The most powerful military in the world has dominated for decades, resulting in a DoD that dwarfs other departments and agencies. The department’s size and budget allow it to get out ahead of the other government departments with planning and action.

An informal coalition like the Quad offers DoD planners in the Indo-Pacific numerous opportunities to conduct military operations. These opportunities nest in the proposed agenda. Through joint exercises or multilateral training, the military with its forward presence and planners is ready to execute. However, economic and diplomatic changes can move slowly. It can take decades for nations to reach agreement on topics that involve their policy goals. Therein lies the danger: The military could outpace those efforts, pushing military action in the spirit of the Quad. This would open up opportunities for China to characterize U.S. military actions as acts of aggression and containment, discouraging other Indo-Pacific nations from supporting them. The military needs to exercise patience and support other elements of national power to preserve and protect the Quad, not threaten or destroy it.

The above work reflects the author’s opinion and does not represent the official policy or position of the Special Forces Regiment, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army. Major Justin Woodward is a Special Forces officer, veteran of small wars, and a student of Unconventional Warfare. He has served in the Army in various roles for 14 years.

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Major Justin Woodward is a Special Forces officer, a veteran of small wars, and a student of Unconventional Warfare. He has served in the Army in various roles for 13 years.