Congress Is Standing United On the Indo-Pacific

COMMENTARY Asia

Congress Is Standing United On the Indo-Pacific

Dec 6th, 2018 4 min read

Commentary By

Walter Lohman

Director, Asian Studies Center

Jeff M. Smith @Cold_Peace_

Research Fellow, South Asia

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act this week. Douglas Christian/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Don’t look now, but a sweeping bill with bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the Trump administration is one step closer to becoming reality.

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., with key co-sponsors like Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., passed the Senate on Wednesday.

This was a welcome display of leadership.

According to Gardner’s office, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act “enshrines a generational and policy framework to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the rules-based international order.” It rightly says the “core tenets” of that order are being challenged, including from:

  1. China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices;
  2. North Korea’s acceleration of its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities; and,
  3. The increased presence throughout Southeast Asia of ISIS and other international terrorist organizations that threaten the United States.

Economics and Trade

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act would encourage the Trump administration to conduct trade negotiations and bilateral investment treaties in the Indo-Pacific, urges it to penalize governments engaged in intellectual property theft, and promotes U.S. energy exports. It would also urge the administration to craft a more comprehensive and focused energy strategy for the Indo-Pacific, including supporting U.S. liquefied natural gas exports to the region.

Additionally, the bill would require the president to submit a report to Congress outlining government efforts to “combat intellectual property violations and commercial cyber-enabled theft in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the People’s Republic of China.”

China and the DPRK

Unsurprisingly, China makes frequent appearances in the legislation. A portion of the new annual funding is to be spent on “Countering China’s Influence to Undermine the International System.” The bill would further support improving the defense capacity of partner nations to counter “certain destabilizing activities of the People’s Republic of China.” It expresses grave concern with China’s efforts to undermine the rules-based order, yet it also “seeks to build a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship with China,” thereby leaving the door open to a more constructive relationship.

The bill calls for “regular freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the Indo-Pacific region,” which have been used to challenge illegal Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Most notably, it encourages the administration to “develop a diplomatic strategy that includes working with U.S. allies and partners to conduct joint maritime training and freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”

To date, U.S. partners and allies have been reluctant to conduct joint freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, where U.S. vessels have been challenged by the Chinese navy and “maritime militia.” Some, like Australia, conduct their own quasi-operations in the South China Sea in a less publicized manner.

North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are also flagged as a key “emerging threat,” and the bill would require the secretary of state to submit a report on “actions taken by the United States to address the threats posed by, and the capabilities of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Allies and Partners

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act would reaffirm congressional support for America’s treaty commitments in the region with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. It supports the Trump administration’s decision to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) among Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S., reborn in November 2017 after a 10-year hiatus.

It would also reaffirm the basis for U.S.-Taiwan relations (including both the Taiwan Relations Act and President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances), encourage the travel of “high-level” U.S. officials to Taiwan, and affirms India’s unique designation as a “major defense partner.” In a nod to the oft-neglected sub-continent role in regional policy, it also calls specifically for expanding “cooperation with democratic partners in South Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.”

Finally, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act would advise the administration to negotiate a “comprehensive economic engagement framework” with ASEAN and stress the importance of enhancing maritime domain awareness and cooperation with the group.

Human Rights

The bill devotes considerable focus to human rights and democratic values, including new funding for democracy promotion and civil society support, while urging new sanctions on human rights abusers. It declares: “[P]romotion of human rights and respect for democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region is in the United States’ national security interest” and “is critical to a successful United States diplomatic strategy in the Indo-Pacific.”

The bill laments “unacceptable human rights developments” in Burma, the Philippines, and China, while registering serious concerns about conditions in Cambodia, North Korea, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Notably, it would specifically prohibit U.S. security assistance to the Burmese military, the Philippines’ national police, or the Cambodian government, all of which have been charged with grave human rights abuses in recent years.

Terrorism

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act requires the director of national intelligence to submit a report assessing the “current and future capabilities of ISIS-linked, al-Qaeda-linked, and other violent extremist groups.” It also authorizes the executive branch to use Asia Reassurance Initiative Act-related funds to “build new counterterrorism partnership programs in Southeast Asia to combat the growing presence of ISIS and other international terrorist organizations that threaten the U.S.”

Funding

The bill would authorize (subject to appropriation) a little more than $1.5 billion annually for the next five years (2019-2023) to fulfill these aims. In so doing, it would address the gap in funding with a similar initiative for Europe. 

Conclusion

There’s little in the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act legislation that will surprise Asia watchers, but it serves several worthy purposes. Centrally, it reaffirms congressional-executive agreement and signals to the world how unified the U.S. government is on key geopolitical issues shaping the Indo-Pacific.

By nature, any bill that garners unanimous support must literally please every senator. The degree of agreement among senators here says a lot about America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal