Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan announced Washington's new strategy for the Indo-Pacific region at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday. The report, which Shanahan touts as affirming the "enduring US commitment to stability and prosperity in the region through the pursuit of preparedness, partnerships, and the promotion of a networked region," outlines how the US will act to curb the influence of Russia and China in the region, as well as address the regional "security challenge" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Noting that the IPSR is informed by the Pentagon's National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, Shanahan said the primary concern of US national security is "inter-state strategic competition, defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions."
"The core diagnosis of the National Defense Strategy is that DoD's military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia is eroding and, if inadequately addressed, it will undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion," the report states. "A negative shift in the regional balance of power could encourage competitors to challenge and subvert the free and open order that supports prosperity and security for the United States and its allies and partners. To address this challenge, DoD is developing a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, and is increasing collaboration with a robust constellation of allies and partners."
Washington's primary and overarching concern in Asia is China, which "under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations," the Pentagon wrote. However, the report also notes that Russia is a "Revitalized Malign Actor," which it says "seeks to advance Moscow's strategic interests while undermining US leadership and the rules-based international order."
The report outlines diplomatic, economic and military ways Beijing "undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order."
Notably, the Pentagon singles out "the PRC's systematic mistreatment of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang — including pervasive discrimination, mass detention, and disappearances" as causing "deep concern" among Muslims in the region, which it notes is home to more than half of the world's Muslim population.
Part of this new strategy was already set in motion before Shanahan's comments in Singapore. The National Defense Authorization Act provided for assistance and training for five US partners in the South China Sea region: Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. On Friday, the Pentagon pushed forward with sales of surveillance drones to all of them except for Brunei.
Under the Maritime Security Initiative, Washington will sell 34 of Boeing's ScanEagle surveillance drones, along with spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training and technical services to the four countries for a total of $47 million, Reuters reported Tuesday. Malaysia is to receive as many as 12 of the drones, while Indonesia will get eight, the Philippines eight and Vietnam six.
"We're providing the building blocks for that such as maritime surveillance capabilities in some countries," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver told USNI for an April 30 article. "In the cases of some countries that's maritime patrol aircraft; in other countries that's coastal radars or [unmanned aerial vehicles] that are equipped for maritime domain awareness. Ultimately it's not only seeing or sensing, it's the opportunity to share and contribute to maritime security."
The ScanEagle is a small drone launched from a portable catapult. It has a 10.2-foot wingspan, weighs 44 pounds and can stay aloft for over 20 hours. It has a range of 62 miles and can fly up to 92 mph, with an average cruising speed of 55 mph. The drone carries no weapons, just a couple of cameras.
These aren't the first sales of ScanEagles to these nations, either. Manila bought six ScanEagle 2 drones for $13 million in 2018, Sputnik reported. USNI noted the US Navy was also considering selling off some of its aging P-3 Orion aircraft, which are large, turbo-prop-driven aircraft based on the L-188 Electra airliner used for surveillance as well as anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. The Navy will be replacing its Orions with the modern P-8 Poseidon, derived from Boeing's 737-800 airliner.
Chinese claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea are viewed by Washington as a major threat to what the report calls the "global commons." Because the US doesn't recognize Beijing's claims of sovereignty over small South China Sea Islands — some of which have been raised above high tide by dredging the ocean floor — the US Navy regularly engages in what it calls "freedom of navigation operations" (FONOPS). During these missions, US warships sail through waters Washington claims are international, but which Beijing regards as its own territorial waters. This can lead to anything from stern warnings to tense showdowns.
The drones are intended to be used to monitor Beijing's activities in the vast waterway, through which sails $3 trillion in trade each year and underneath which are believed to be huge hydrocarbon reserves. However, China introduced earlier this year its own tools to more adequately monitor the South China Sea, including movable offshore platforms capable of tracking everything from weather patterns and tsunami dangers to human activities, Sputnik reported.