ADM Phil Davidson
Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command
China's Challenge to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Harvard Kennedy School in MA
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Ambassador Burns, for the kind introduction and for being such a gracious host during my visit to this renowned academic institution.
To all the faculty, fellows, staff, and students in attendance, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some insight and perspective on the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility.
After I give my remarks, I am happy to take questions, and I am very interested in hearing your perspectives and feedback.
As I look around the room at the impressive collection of past, present, and future policymakers and strategists, I hope this dialogue leaves you with a deeper understanding of the paramount concern dominating our efforts at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, one that will define U.S. policy and strategy in the 21st Century…China.
It is only fitting that our discussion this afternoon falls on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Right now, in Beijing and all across China, it is October 1st, National Day; a time of celebration for the Communist Party of China.
And while the Party celebrates China’s unprecedented prosperity and continued rise in status, the United States is faced with an historic dilemma: how to compete against China’s challenge to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Allow me to begin with an overview of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command before discussing the challenges of the U.S.-China relationship and the implementation of the National Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii, is the oldest and largest of the U.S. military’s six geographic combatant commands, overseeing more than 377,000 personnel.
The area of responsibility stretches from the west coast of the United States all the way to the India-Pakistan border, and from the Arctic down to the Antarctic. With 52% of the earth’s surface area and 14 of the globe’s 24 time zones, it is not just a region, it is its own hemisphere.
The Indo-Pacific hemisphere is home to:
- 37 nations (including Taiwan);
- More than 50% of the world’s population;
- 2 of the 3 largest economies in the world, as well as 10 of the 14 smallest economies;
- 7 of the 10 largest militaries in the world;
- 5 of the world’s 8 nuclear weapons nations; and
- 5 of the United States’ 7 major security alliances, including our oldest ally in the region,
- Thailand, dating back to 1833.
We are currently facing five key challenges in this region:
1. First, until the nuclear situation is resolved on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will remain our most immediate threat.
2. China represents the greatest long-term strategic threat to security, not only in the Indo-Pacific, but to the entire globe. I will spend the majority of our time today talking with you about China.
3. I am also concerned about Russia’s growing malign influence throughout the region. Moscow regularly plays the role of spoiler, seeking to undermine U.S. regional interests and impose additional costs on the United States and our allies, whenever and wherever possible. In that vein, I am concerned about the growing relationship between Beijing and Moscow.
4. Terrorism and other non-state actors also pose threats to our vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, as they seek to impose their views and radicalize people across the region. Perhaps the greatest recent example was the 2017 ISIS takeover of the Southern Philippines city of Marawi, which is no small village, home to more than 200,000 people.
5. Lastly, the Indo-Pacific remains the most disaster-prone region in the world. It contains 75 percent of the globe’s volcanoes, while 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur in the Pacific Basin. Many countries across the region lack sufficient capability and capacity to manage natural and man-made disasters.
To address all of these challenges, and specifically, the long-term challenge presented by China, we must field and sustain a joint force with our allies and partners that is postured to win before fighting and, if necessary, fight and win.
You may recall that President Trump announced the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision at the 2017 East Asia Summit.
Since President Trump’s announcement, there has been a general convergence toward the articulation of a common Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision amongst senior officials in the U.S. government:
- Vice President Pence,
- Secretary Pompeo,
- Former Secretary Mattis,
- Former Acting Secretary Shanahan,
- And, most recently, Secretary Esper.
Additionally, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, Canada, and ASEAN followed the U.S.’s lead, putting forth similar visions.
USINDOPACOM is staunchly committed to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Free: When I say “Free,” I mean free both in terms of traditional security (free from coercion by other nations) and in terms of values and political systems.
- Free societies respect individual rights and liberties, the promotion of good governance, and adherence to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Free means nations do not have to choose with whom they partner and trade out of fear or coercion. Instead, they are free to exercise their sovereignty – and their choice.
Open: All nations should enjoy unfettered, open access to the seas and airways upon which our people and economies depend. The concept of openness also applies to the cyberspace and space domains, which provide critical avenues for future global prosperity.
- According to our vision, nations are able to have open investment environments, transparent agreements between one another, protection of intellectual property rights, and fair and reciprocal trade.
- Seas are not borders…oceans do not separate us…they connect us together, bringing mutual benefits, common growth, and shared success.
We believe allies and partners are critical to the prosperity of the region. All countries should have a voice in shaping the international system.
Despite the many cultural differences across the region, there are 3 common areas which make up the foundation of our partnership efforts:
- 1. Values: First, it is evident the vast majority of nations across the region hold similar values, including the core belief that governments should be chosen freely by their citizens and are, therefore, accountable to their people.
- 2. Interests: Second, the vast majority of nations in the region share common interests and an understanding of the economic strength of the Indo-Pacific.
- 3. Mutual Security: Third, the vast majority of nations in the Indo-Pacific share similar security concerns and challenges.
This is how the U.S. has approached the Indo-Pacific region throughout our 240-plus year history, and we will remain committed to these tenants.
Since the establishment of the current international order, the U.S. has promoted a free and open system that advocates for all nations throughout the region, to include China.
The Communist Party of China promotes a drastically different value system, not just in the security realm, but in everything, including governance, trade, human rights, and intellectual property.
For four decades, America’s strategy for dealing with China was rooted in prevailing liberal values that link trade, economic growth, good governance, and a belief in the universal human desire for freedom.
This strategy assumed that liberal, democratic values and economic growth would be coupled as we integrated transitional economies into the rules-based international system.
For many years, the West underestimated the resilience of the Communist Party of China’s ideology and ability to retain and strengthen its role to restore China’s self-viewed rightful place.
Domestically, the Communist Party enforces authoritarianism, with a complete lack of respect for human rights. This stands in stark contrast to American values.
The ongoing crisis in Hong Kong is a result of their citizens’ belief that their civil liberties are eroding, not expanding under Communist Party of China control.
As Assistant Secretary Stilwell said last week, the Chinese government is “using the word ‘terrorism’ a lot with respect to people who are simply protesting the loss of their liberties.”
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command continues to carefully monitor the situation in Hong Kong with a strong desire for stability and a peaceful resolution. We are watching it closely, as is the rest of the world.
As President Trump mentioned during his address to the U.N., China’s binding treaty commits them to “protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system, and democratic way of life.”
Beyond Hong Kong…and deep within China’s borders…the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang, where nearly 1 million Uighur Muslims are being held in internment camps for simple expressions of cultural and religious identity, highlight the horrifying human rights violations occurring in China.
China’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific transcends all elements of national power: Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic, and resides in the “gray zone”… simultaneously blending together multiple instruments of national power, while generating increasingly unique challenges for our allies and partners.
Domestically, China’s Ministry of Education sponsors Confucius Institutes to promote the Party’s message on sensitive topics like Hong Kong or Uighur Muslims.
The Communist Party of China is well-known for controlling all Chinese news media information, guaranteeing a pro-Party message across all platforms. This includes social media apps like WeChat and TikTok, which extend messaging and censorship beyond China’s borders.
Likewise, China’s overseas consulates and embassies typically use student groups to conduct protests denouncing anti-China claims and efforts.
China continues to pursue intellectual property theft through methods such as cyber, espionage, counterfeiting, and piracy. As Vice President Pence declared at the Hudson Institute, “Beijing has directed its bureaucrats and businesses to obtain American intellectual property by any means necessary.”
China presents noteworthy challenges to regional security through the build-up of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, Air Force, and the development of multiple families of long-range, land-based missiles and anti-satellite weapons that threaten U.S., ally, and partner interests.
China’s excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea are well-publicized, and they show no signs of backing down, despite criticism from the global community.
Additionally, China claims that it’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea, are defensive in nature, designed to defend Chinese sovereignty. But in doing so, they are violating the sovereignty of every other nation’s ability to fly, sail, and operate in accordance with international law.
China is investing heavily in overseas ports and infrastructure, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. Their “string of pearls” network includes presence in Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and other nations.
Globally, there is concern that China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic policy is failing to meet high standards due to corruption, substandard construction practices, and loans that lack financial viability.
Countries have been promised grants and loans, which are often under-delivered and ill-structured to meet the long-term needs of these small nations and their citizens.
It is also clear that “One Belt, One Road” is not simply an economic program. China plans to use some of these OBOR projects to support its strategic interests and seek military access overseas.
At last week’s U.N. General Assembly, the President criticized China for failing to uphold its commitments upon entry into the WTO. The President questioned why China declares itself a developing country at the expense of others, despite being the second-largest economy on Earth.
China’s economy, although slowing, enjoys historically unprecedented growth, made possible by the rules-based international order China now seeks to undermine.
Today, a large gap exists between what the Communist Party of China says it stands for and what it does across the globe.
The Party preaches equality, mutual benefit, openness, and inclusiveness.
However, the Party violates the sovereignty of other nations in the South China Sea and throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Conversely, the United States is a constitutional republic with an intense focus on representative government, human rights, and individual liberties.
Inclusiveness is a fundamental aspect of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The United States aspires toward a regional order of sovereign nations that defends its populations, respects human dignity, competes fairly in the open market, and remains free from coercion.
Through graft, fear, and coercion, Beijing is working to expand its form of authoritarian, Communist-Socialist ideology in order to bend, break, and replace the established rules-based international order and prevent a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Government officials within the region frequently feel forced to choose between economic and security relations with China or with the United States.
The U.S. is not asking governments to choose between the U.S. or China. Nor are we seeking to own the international order. We defend the outcomes and results this order has produced over the past 70 years, ensuring peace, security, and prosperity for all.
Overcoming China’s many challenges to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific requires a whole-of-government approach by the United States, utilizing all instruments of our national power.
For the purpose of today’s discussion, I will focus the remainder of my discussion on the military element of our government.
The National Defense Strategy clearly articulates our country’s strategy to “compete, deter, and win.”
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is focused on regaining our competitive military advantage to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Make no mistake, we are in full-blown strategic competition with China.
It is important to highlight that competition does not mean conflict; however, we must ensure our diplomatic and economic efforts are reinforced by a strong military deterrent.
Competition does not preclude cooperation, nor preordain singular winners and losers – it is much more complex than that.
Our overarching goal is to deter revisionist behavior that erodes a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Our combat forces operate forward with allies and partners to provide credible deterrence, ensure freedom of navigation, and access to open markets.
Deterrence requires both the capability and demonstrated will to use force if required. The CCPs aggressive actions and increasingly overt rhetoric are actually enabling this relatively simple deterrence formula.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command will be postured to achieve an advantageous security environment without the lethal use of military force…to win without fighting.
Our forces must be agile and distributed; achieve positional advantage; be interoperable and compatible; and like the Cold War, we must hone our ability to reveal and conceal.
In that vein, the following four focus areas guide my Command’s strategy.
- 1. Increasing Joint Force lethality. We continue to develop and field new technologies, operational concepts, and capabilities necessary to deter aggression and prevail in armed conflict, should deterrence fail in competition with China.
- 2. Enhancing our design and posture. We are adapting from our historic Service-centric focus on Northeast Asia toward a more integrated Joint Force blueprint. This includes revising our Indo-Pacific force laydown with our allies and partners to account for China’s rapid modernization.
- 3. Exercises, experimentation, and innovation. We are focused on increasing Joint Force readiness, especially given the level of interoperability and integrated fires required to compete with China. We are modernizing the joint exercise program to refine joint and combined command and control operations with partner nations.
- 4. Strengthening our allies and partners. We are increasing interoperability, information-sharing, and access with allies and partners across the region, to enhance our capabilities and improve our coordination to compete against China.
I believe that we can, and we will, compete, deter, and win in the great power competition with China because of our values, interests, and mutual security.
If the international community bands together to maintain the established international order and ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, we will win before fighting.
In closing, as China continues its rise and the United States seeks to maintain influence and expand opportunities throughout the region, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command remains committed to a Free and Open-Indo Pacific, despite the unique and evolving challenges presented by China.
We will cooperate where we can…but vigorously compete where we must…to preserve the established rules-based international order.
To the students here who will go on to serve as future government officials, industry titans, environmental policy pioneers, or esteemed faculty members of our prestigious universities…I am encouraged by your generation’s desire to innovate, to challenge, to discover, to think critically, and to act…in order to improve our future.
This is exactly what is needed to overcome the evolving challenges to peace, prosperity, and security in the 21st century.
Thank you for your time, I look forward to your questions.