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International relations

US military's new Indo-Pacific Command reflects China concerns

Pentagon name change aims to underscore cooperation with regional allies

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sails in waters off Okinawa, alongside a refueling ship, in October 2017.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- The U.S. government has changed the name of the Defense Department's Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, a reflection of its shift in focus toward checking China's growing naval might in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

The new command is in line with the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" promoted by the U.S., together with Japan and other allies. The name change, announced by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Hawaii on May 30, may lead to calls for Japan to take a more active role in implementing the strategy.

Mattis made the announcement during a leadership change in the unified combatant command of the U.S. armed forces, stressing the linkage between the new command and the strategy.

The name change appears more symbolic than substantive at first glance. The previous Pacific Command covered the same area: the U.S. West Coast to the Indian Ocean, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. With 375,000 military and civilian personnel under its control, it was responsible for monitoring more than half of the globe and overseeing U.S. forces stationed in Japan and South Korea. The new Indo-Pacific Command has the same mission.

The Indo-Pacific strategy envisions greater cooperation among democratic countries with market economy and legal-based society in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. "The main motivation for the name change is to emphasize the importance the U.S. military places on moving between the Pacific and Indian oceans, and using forces in both oceans to support each other," said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based think tank. "The change has caused other governments to speculate about the thinking behind [it]," Roy added.

The name change has already drawn China's attention. At a news conference on May 31, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, "Whatever it is called, the U.S. should act with a responsible attitude when it comes to its presence in the Asia-Pacific, and play a constructive role in promoting regional peace and stability."

China is expanding its presence in the South China Sea, building military installations there. Economically, President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative seeks to expand China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In announcing the change in the name of the U.S. military command, Mattis made a point of saying that the Indo-Pacific region has "many belts and many roads," underscoring the concerns of the administration of President Donald Trump about China and its intentions.

And there are indications the change is about more than nomenclature. The U.S. Navy's biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise, or Rimpac, is taking place in waters off Hawaii from June 27 through Aug. 2 this year. More than 20 countries, including Japan, Australia, Britain and France, are taking part. China was pointedly excluded from this year's exercise, despite having participated in the previous two drills in 2014 and 2016.

Washington rescinded its earlier invitation in late May, citing China's ongoing militarization of the South China Sea. The announcement was made soon after China began conducting takeoff and landing practice for long-range bombers in the area for the first time.

The U.S. has also repeatedly conducted "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea, sailing pairs of warships within 12 nautical miles of islands controlled by China in the disputed Paracel Islands.

Japan has welcomed Washington's actions. The Indo-Pacific strategy was first proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. During a meeting with U.S. Adm. Philip Davidson, the new head of the Indo-Pacific Command, at the prime minister's office on June 21 of this year, Abe expressed Japan's willingness to "promote the strategy," together with the U.S.

U.S. Adm. Philip Davidson, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on June 21. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

"The South China Sea lies between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific," Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has noted. He believes the command's name change reflects the "strong interest" of the U.S. in the presence of China.

According to participants in the Abe-Davidson meeting, Davidson stressed that the freedom of navigation operations would continue. But some Japanese officials have expressed concern. A former commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet previously asked whether Japan could participate in the operations. Japan rejected the proposal, saying it had no direct territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Trump has repeatedly pressed U.S. allies to shoulder a greater share of their defense costs. Because the South China Sea is directly connected with the security of Japan's shipping lanes, Trump "will not permit free riding," said a Japanese official.

This puts Japan in a difficult position. If it takes part in freedom of navigation operations, relations with China will be strained. If it refuses, the Trump administration may pressure Japan in other ways, such as demanding that it buy more U.S. arms.

"The Indo-Pacific strategy will work only if the U.S. establishes friendly relations with its allies in the region," said Tetsuo Kotani, an associate professor at Meikai University, southeast of Tokyo.

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