When US acting secretary of defence Patrick Shanahan steps up to address one of Asia’s biggest security forums this week, he is expected to reveal details of a “new” phase in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. The strategy is mainly aimed at curbing Beijing’s growing clout in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and a change in the approach was signalled last month when a senior US defence official said Shanahan would explain the Indo-Pacific’s role as a “priority theatre”. Shanahan’s speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday will be on America’s new Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and “should provide an insight into the US administration’s current thinking about the challenges from China and North Korea, as well as other regional security problems”, according to Tim Huxley, executive director of the event’s organiser, IISS – Asia. China will no doubt be listening, with Beijing sending its defence minister, Wei Fenghe, to the security forum for the first time since 2011. The speech will cap a flurry of American diplomatic activity in the region, including a four-day trip to Japan by US President Donald Trump and Shanahan’s own stops in Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. How China’s military upgrade and trade tensions are challenging the US in Indo-Pacific The term “Indo-Pacific” first emerged as regional strategic framework in US politics in 2010 when then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton used it to signal renewed American interest in the area. “Expanding our work with the Indian Navy in the Pacific … we understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is to global trade and commerce,” Clinton said in Honolulu. The strategy combines military and geoeconomic aims to contain China’s military expansion in the Pacific and the Indian oceans, as well as providing alternative development models to China’s massive international infrastructure drive, the Belt and Road Initiative. The approach was reinforced in 2016 with the release of Japan’s new foreign policy strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” to further promote the “rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade”. The US has also enlisted support for the policy from Australia and India, with the four countries forming what is known as the Quad. But as China expands its military reach by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and opening its first foreign base in Djibouti, the US may see the need for a rethink. Washington’s concerns were reflected in an annual congressional report called “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019”. “Over the coming decades, [Chinese leaders] are focused on realising a powerful and prosperous China that is equipped with a ‘world-class’ military, securing China’s status as a great power with the aim of emerging as the pre-eminent power in the Indo-Pacific region,” the report said. “In 2018, China continued militarisation in the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on outposts in the Spratly Islands. “The People’s Liberation Army Navy also continued submarine deployments to the Indian Ocean, demonstrating its increasing familiarity with operating in that region and underscoring China’s interest in protecting [sea lines of communication] beyond the South China Sea … China will remain the largest spender in the Indo-Pacific region besides the United States.” Amid escalating US-China tensions, Indo-Pacific leaders need to play key role in keeping regional peace But the US has struggled to attract interest in the strategy beyond the Quad members because other countries are hesitant to take sides against China. Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the link between the Quad and the Indo-Pacific framework was a major limitation and new challenges required a change in focus. “The Quad limits the scope of cooperation,” Chaturvedy said, adding that the strategy must expand to include non-traditional security players. “I think, there is a growing need, economic and security and strategic interests and willingness among various nations to work together to deal with emerging security challenges. So, more countries could work under this framework.” Whatever announcement is made on Friday it is likely to complement – not replace – the existing US-led approach, according to experts and sources familiar to the matter. A former US diplomat said the new strategy was designed to improve operational efficiency in the Pacific and Indian oceans and the announcement “is likely to focus on the military aspects only”. And Timothy Heath, a former analyst at US Pacific Command and now with the Rand Corporation, said the announcement “may include programmes to transfer various military platforms, such as surveillance drones or reconnaissance aircraft, to increase maritime awareness for all countries in the region”. Submarine arms race seen heating up in Indo-Pacific amid ‘great threat’ from China Heath said there was also a good possibility that European countries would increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. “We have already seen France and [Britain] send ships in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea,” he said. “This is likely to continue, as European countries share some concerns with the US about growing Chinese power. Taiwan may be interested, but serious policy obstacles to formal cooperation with the US military remain. More likely, Taiwan may carry out its own independent operations, some of which may be supportive of US efforts. “The Indian Ocean and the South China Sea are critical water spaces for the global economy, and it is in the interest of all countries to ensure the stability and security of these areas. Deploying ships from diverse navies would help reaffirm the principle that the waters are international, do not belong to anyone, and should remain safe for all shipping.” Nevertheless, there are concerns in the region that the US strategy focuses too much on security and is simply an anti-China initiative, something Washington has sought to offset with a range of investment and economic programmes. Observers said Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean Rim countries would be interested in economic sweeteners in the long term, which would ultimately expand the influence of the US in the region. “The US will likely continue to build partnerships outside of the Quad. The US will probably invest more resources and efforts towards building its partnerships with countries in the Indian Ocean Rim Association as well as countries in Southeast Asia,” Heath said. Chaturvedy said Indonesia and some countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations appeared more active on “regional economic diplomacy with a clear emphasis on rules-based order and collaboration on shared interests”. “A multipolar Indo-Pacific could become a profound platform to manage the competing interests of major powers in a vast common domain in an emerging world order,” Chaturvedy said.