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International relations

US and China project 'sharp power' in the Indian Ocean

Trump prepares a new initiative to counter Belt and Road

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and US President Donald Trump are pursuing separate development initiatives in the Indian Ocean.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As the world's two largest economies compete to expand their spheres of influence, the U.S. and China are pushing separate development initiatives centered around the Indian Ocean.

China has its Belt and Road Initiative, proposed in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, which aims to build infrastructure spanning from Asia to Europe and incorporating overland and maritime elements. The country has already spent a fortune building land routes and ports.

Washington, for its part, has embarked on its own initiative to maintain the existing international order, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In early January, experts on national security and economics from the right-leaning Hudson Institute, as well as former senior U.S. officials, got together to discuss the situation at the Washington-based think tank.

"We need to keep our eyes wide open," Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute, said of what China is aiming to do in the Indian Ocean. On top of soft power, such as Chinese opera, and hard power, as represented in its military buildup, Twining warned of a third form of power that is taking shape.

"There is now this emerging form of sharp power," he said. Countries like China gain "undue leverage" through massive infrastructure investments. The targets of these influence operations are not limited to small nations in need of aid, but also strong democracies such as Australia and New Zealand.

Twining described this as a new tool kit of power and influence. "We need to catch up. There is conversation about our own competitiveness and how we sharpen the tools in that tool kit."

A similar debate is heating up behind the scenes at the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. The National Security Council met several times from November to December last year, after President Donald Trump returned from a five-nation Asian tour.

The debate centered on how to counter the China's growing exercise of power through the Belt and Road, and in other ways, and culminated in official approval of a U.S. riposte: the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Documents compiling specific measures were also greenlighted.

The idea originated with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government; the Trump administration piggybacked on it. Although the White House documents are confidential, they have three main points, insiders say.

The first urges the U.S. to work with its allies and friendly nations to maintain order based on freedom and the rule of law in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The second, has to do with means: The U.S., Japan, Australia and India should strengthen their maritime patrols and work with the coast guards of other littoral countries to ensure that they can protect their own waters.

The third calls on the U.S., Japan, Australia, India and other nations to assist in securing the sea lanes from Asia to the Middle East, and to develop ports in key areas -- Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and the Bay of Bengal.

A Chinese-led master project plan displayed at a construction site in Colombo Port City, Sri Lanka. The U.S. also aims to build ports in the Indian Ocean.   © Reuters

The strategy is led by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

A leading thinker at the U.S. Defense Department said Mattis and McMaster are concerned that the Belt and Road is the avenue through which China intends to pursue its goal of becoming the world's top power by 2049, as Xi proclaimed during last autumn's Communist Party congress, posing a serious challenge to the U.S.-dominated geopolitical order.

Like people, countries have certain DNA. It is rooted in the country's history and culture.

The U.S. has an instinctive urge to extend its sphere of influence westward. In 1620, English pilgrims on the Mayflower arrived at what would later become the U.S. East Coast. Having gained their independence a century and a half later, Americans slowly made their way across the continent and into the Pacific Ocean. In the 19th century, Hawaii was annexed and the Philippines became an American colony. Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 triggered an all-out war between the two countries.

The same thing is happening now on the other side of the Pacific. China has its own instinct to extend its sway, so as to encompass its neighbors. This is symbolized by the Great Wall. China's race to build the Belt and Road shows this awakening instinct.

As a superpower, the U.S. has a survival instinct that will not countenance the emergence of a stronger rival. To ensure that, the U.S. will be have to counter a river of concrete, steel and money that China is using to build its Belt and Road.

In the Maldives, former President Mohamed Nasheed has warned that the debt the island nation owes China is unpayable and that China will be in a position to take over infrastructure assets. "Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land than the East India Company at the height of the 19th century," he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

As the Trump administration hones its new tools, it may find that the battle of sharp power is a draining one.

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