TOKYO -- When Admiral Scott Swift enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1978, there were no concepts of soft power or smart power. The navy had around 530 active ships, nearly twice the number of today, and mass counted.
Forty years later, as he prepares to retire as commander of the Pacific Fleet, Swift leaves behind a much changed world. Policymakers and scholars in Washington talk of "influence operations" conducted by countries such as China and Russia, which aim to gain undue leverage through infrastructure building and unrepayable debt.
On Tuesday, on his last visit to Japan, Swift talked of a new application of power that he sees in the Indo-Pacific region. "Coercive economic actions" are being taken, he said, in an apparent dig at China. These players "increase debt in a given country and then turn around and ask for something in return that was not part of the original negotiation."
That is a concern that has increasingly come up in his discussions with regional leaders, he said.
"We need to clarify exactly what the greatest concern of the region is," he said during a group interview in Tokyo. "And that is the diminishment of the rules-based order."
The current rules-based international order, Swift said, was born out of the experience of World War II to ensure that "if a country grew in military strength, it would not be in a position to use that strength in the context of 'might makes right' to force its will on other nations."
Might, however, seems to be making a lot of things right in the Indo-Pacific if one were to flip through the news. In the Maldives, former President Mohamed Nasheed has claimed that 16 islands are already under Beijing's control, and that the Indian Ocean country will have to cede more as it is saddled with an unrepayable amount of debt accumulated through infrastructure projects.
Pakistan, the recipient of an estimated $60 billion investment for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the single largest infrastructure investment program under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, is set to become further reliant on Beijing's money after an inter-governmental anti-money laundering watchdog initiated a process to place the country on a counter-terrorist financing watchlist.
The administration of President Donald Trump took note of China's expanding influence in the National Security Strategy report published last December. "A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region," it noted.
"China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.
"Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific," the report said.
In an interconnected world, such changes in a regional balance of power can have global consequences, and that is why the U.S. has taken note of this new form of power.
"I've made four trips to China," Swift told the reporters. "Competition is not a bad thing. The question is: what is the rule set that is going to govern this competition?"
He closed by saying that he regrets not being able to take part in that competition in uniform. Last September, the veteran sailor requested to retire after being informed that he was not the Navy's choice to replace Adm. Harry Harris as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
On Swift's watch, two fatal collisions between U.S. warships and merchant ships resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.
Swift's replacement, 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. John Aquilino, was announced in February.