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“China Power: Up for Debate”

By ADM Phil Davidson | U.S. Indo-Pacific Command | Nov. 30, 2018

ADM Phil Davidson
Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

“China Power: Up for Debate”
Honolulu, Hawaii (VTC to Washington, D.C.)

November 29, 2018
As Prepared Remarks



Thank you, Derek, for the kind introduction.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about the Indo-Pacific region. I know there were a number of great discussions earlier today on the implications of China’s rising power and the implications for the international community.

I firmly believe the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific will be the engine that drives global economic development, and it is in all of our interest that the international community play an active role in preserving the rules-based international order.
This is where the United States’ free and open Indo-Pacific strategy comes into play.


You have likely heard the phrase “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” quite a bit in the past year.

President Trump announced a vision - or end-state - for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” when he traveled to the Region last year, and Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and others have further defined that vision.

It may seem self-evident, but let me offer a few thoughts on what we at USINDOPACOM believe when we say “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

We mean “Free” both in terms of security – being free from coercion by other nations – and in terms of values and political systems.

There is agreement that free societies respect individual rights and liberties, to include the freedom to openly practice their religion; free societies promote good governance; and free societies adhere to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Free” means nations do not have to choose who they trade with and who they partner with because of fear or coercion.

An “Open” Indo-Pacific means we believe all nations should enjoy unfettered access to the seas and airways upon which our nations and economies depend.

An “Open” Indo-Pacific includes open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, protection of intellectual property rights, fair and reciprocal trade – all of which are essential for people, goods, and capital to move across borders for the shared benefit of all.

While the term “a free and open Indo-Pacific” is in fact new, the underlying values and principles the vision speaks are not – in fact, this is how the U.S. has approached the region throughout our 240+ year history.

Further, we are seeing a general convergence around the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific across the region – as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and India have all put forth similar concepts or visions.

By clarifying our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, we reaffirm with zero ambiguity the United States is an enduring Pacific power, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific is a core interest of the United States.

When I took command back in May, I said that for more than 70 years, the Indo-Pacific has been largely peaceful; in most ways, this was made possible by two things: the commitment of free nations to the free and open international order… and underwritten by the credibility of the combat power within U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

China was one of the biggest beneficiaries of these conditions and it enabled China to become the 2nd largest economy in the world, lifting millions of people out of poverty at a pace never achieved before.

But now China is trying to change the very rules they have benefited from.

Often times, when we think of coercion, we think in military terms and violent outcomes, but with the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to keep disagreements just below the threshold of armed conflict, coercion has become particularly evident in the sphere of economics.

It is problematic when countries promise loans and improve infrastructure and economic development, but have a much more opaque intention underneath.

When nations accept loans for more than they can possibly afford – often secured through corruption – borrowers quickly find themselves deep in debt and on the path to default, with the lender gaining leverage against the borrower’s sovereignty.

This is not right, and it is not new. It is debt-trap diplomacy, or as some say, “predatory economics.” It is a pernicious and insidious challenge to many in the region today.

The U.S. opposed such practices in the 19th and early 20th century and continues to do so today.

We see similar coercion with the PRC’s militarization of features and a sustained campaign to intimidate other nations in the East and South China Seas, while also making excessive territorial claims that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague does not accept.

The intensifying competition between the U.S. and China is not just driven by the traditional dynamics of power politics between an established and emerging power.

Rather, I believe we are facing something much more serious – a fundamental divergence in values that leads to two incompatible visions of the future.

Chinese senior officials openly express dissatisfaction with the existing world order which they describe as built and led by the U.S., rooted in American or western values and operating to Washington’s great benefit but to the detriment of other nations.

So China is looking to change the world order to one where national power is more important than international law; a system where the “strong do what they will and the weak do what they must.”

Since 1978, U.S. policy toward China has focused primarily on increasing the levels of engagement and inclusion with China, with the intention of bringing them into the community of nations.

As distasteful as China’s tactics have been, we recognize the need to continue to find ways to address many of the problems that have been discussed.

Engagement is critical to designing the solutions that will help promote and advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.

So the U.S. will continue to cooperate where we can, but as the National Defense Strategy makes clear, compete where we must. The stakes in the region are just too high.

So what do we do, and how do we respond, to those who reject our vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific?

Well, the most obvious point – and one made abundantly clear in the U.S. National Security Strategy – is that whatever we do, we must do it together, which means we need to start by identifying areas of agreement.

From my travels around the region, I’ve found three specific areas where I believe we can ground our efforts to advance a Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Our values, our interests, and our commitment to our mutual security, so that all may prosper.

First, the vast majority of nations across the region do share similar values, including the core belief that governments should be chosen freely by their citizens and are, therefore, accountable to their people.

Foreign interference in our governments, intellectual property theft, suppression of religious beliefs, malign cyber activities, and attempts to override state sovereignty using fear and coercion all run counter to the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

We must stand together in support of our shared values and be unambiguous in condemning those who attempt to undermine those values. I know it’s easy to become distracted by the differences between our nations and to think of them as larger fissures, but that’s just not the case.

While the Indo-Pacific is one of the largest and most diverse regions on Earth, these differences are actually strengths; and the thousands of miles of ocean and sky between us do not divide us, but in actuality, they are the connective elements that bind us together.

Second, the vast majority of nations in the region share a common vision of the economic strength of the Indo-Pacific. Economists know the future of global economic growth is in the Indo-Pacific, and that free and open trade are the keys to that future.

But we know all nations can advance together in ways that benefit everyone involved, and we want to do it fairly.

Where America goes, we seek partnership and collaboration, not domination. We do not believe in using loans as coercion or development as a weapon.

We seek to work with anyone to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, so long as that cooperation adheres to the highest standards that our citizens demand.

For example, the United States’ Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, has a portfolio of $3.9 billion invested in the Indo-Pacific alongside American firms in energy, healthcare, and banking. For every dollar that OPIC has invested, the private sector has more than doubled it.

And just this past September, the United States passed and placed into law the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act, or BUILD Act, that will make it even easier for America’s private sector to invest in developing countries to create economic partnerships and stimulate economic growth.

We know nations can advance together without sacrificing sovereignty or making corrupt backroom deals, because the power of private investment has lifted billions out of poverty since the end of World War 2, and we are confident that it will continue to do so.

Third, the vast majority of nations in the Indo-Pacific also share similar security concerns and challenges. In fact, cooperating on security is at the heart of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Of course, security cooperation is more than fighting together in wars; it also means preventing war by presenting a credible deterrent to would-be adversaries.

Security cooperation includes working together to respond to humanitarian crises and natural disasters, such as relief for the earthquake and tsunami that struck Indonesia just two months ago.

Security cooperation also means working together in areas like countering terrorism, illegal drugs, illegal-unreported and unregulated fishing, and human trafficking.

In brief, cooperating in times of peace AND war to make our people safer and the Indo-Pacific more secure.

Thinking about values, interests, and security independently helps us identify common ground, but it’s important to remember that these concepts actually intersect, and challenges to one area have ramifications across all three. Perhaps the best example of this is in the South China Sea.

Earlier this decade, the PRC ignored international law, disregarded legitimate claims from smaller countries, and built a number of illegal features in the South China Sea.

Then, despite President Xi’s 2015-promise not to militarize these features, the PLA secretly deployed anti-ship missiles, electronic jammers, and surface to air missiles (also known as SAMs) earlier this year.

As I mentioned in my remarks in Halifax, what was a “Great Wall of Sand” just three years ago is now a “Great Wall of SAMs” in the South China Sea, giving the PRC the potential to exert national control over international waters and airspace through which over 3 trillion dollars in goods travel every year, along with commercial air traffic, as well as information and financial data through undersea cables.

The PRC says they’re militarizing these features in order to defend Chinese sovereignty, but in doing so they’re now violating the sovereignty of every other nation’s ability to fly, sail, and operate in accordance with international law.

But let me be perfectly clear, when we talk security or freedom of navigation, I’m not talking about a Chinese ship’s unsafe and unprofessional act towards an American ship in the South China Sea.

We are talking about the security and the right of all nations to trade, to communicate, to send their financial information and communications through cables under the sea.

Let me give you a few numbers that demonstrate the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea:

  • Nearly a third of global maritime trade, roughly 3.5 trillion dollars, goes through the South China Sea every year
  • Almost a third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied natural gas passes through the South China Sea each year
  • The sea lines of communication that criss-cross the South China Sea carry trillions of dollars in trade annually

Through militarization, excessive territorial claims, debt-trap diplomacy, and intimidation campaigns, short of war, China has the ability to control the South China Sea and cut off the flow of trade, finance, and communications in South East Asia, an area on which the entire world’s economic future depends.

Further, in the ongoing negotiations over a South China Sea Code of Conduct, the PRC is pressuring ASEAN states into granting China de facto veto authority over who ASEAN states can sail, fly, train, and operate with in the South China Sea.

If ASEAN agrees to the language, China could prevent ASEAN nations from training with the United States, Australia, Japan, and other nations in international waters.

Thankfully, strong ASEAN nations are resisting Beijing’s efforts, and I was happy to hear one of the major announcements out of the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus was that ASEAN would conduct a major maritime exercise with the U.S. and others next year.

But China is indeed aggressively trying to dictate to ASEAN what an international order, with Chinese characteristics, looks like.

This past October, Chinese Navy officials from the Southern Theater Command gave a presentation to visiting heads of Navy participating in an ASEAN-China maritime exercise.

During the presentation, Chinese officials presented a slide showing the South China Sea and the nine-dash line, with the presenter stating the slide depicts sovereign Chinese territory, the area inside the nine-dash line was indisputably China’s, and it is the responsibility of the Chinese Southern Theater Command to enforce Chinese sovereignty in the area, regardless of other countries legitimate claims.

The slide and accompanying voice over were controversial with the ASEAN group and angered several of the participants, although none publically challenged the presenter.

Rather than using the maritime exercise to bring China closer to ASEAN countries, China used it as a way to again challenge them and aggressively reinforce their claims.

We must stand together in support of ASEAN – indeed all nations – while also standing together in support of the idea that all nations have the right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.

In closing, I would like to make one additional comment on the perception of choice.

The United States is not asking anyone to choose. The very phrase “Free and Open” obviates that question.

The United States helped set the conditions for a free and open Indo-Pacific following World War II by setting other nations free. What is clear is the region, especially China, has mainly benefited from that international rules-based order.

But China must realize that being a great power comes with even greater responsibility. Great nations lead forward toward a compelling vision of the future. This means a China embracing a new paradigm, based on their extraordinary economic accomplishments and foreign policy influence.

A change in China’s behavior will only be possible with the international community’s collective pressure and the realization by the leaders of the Communist Party that a free and open Indo-Pacific is to the betterment of all in the region, to include China.

Though not every nation has the capability or the will to directly challenge China, every nation still has a role to play.

Even a nation as large or powerful as China knows it lacks the ability to challenge us when we are unified towards a common purpose.

When strong nations stand up – and stand together – for a free and open Indo-Pacific, we send a signal that it’s okay to resist – and that signal will be heard by those nations absorbing the full weight of Chinese malign influence.

Yes, there is still much work to do, but the invitation remains an invitation to all, including China.

Thank you for having me join your discussion and I look forward to your questions.

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