A senior U.S. official said Thursday the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region was not a move to expand U.S. domination but reflected Washington’s “enduring engagement” to make the area prosperous.
David Stilwell, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said security is a pillar in the U.S. model of engagement in the region but it isn’t a central part and is done through partnerships with regional countries.
“The central part of this is prosperity, economic development and the rest,” he said in response to a question at a forum about China’s concern that the U.S. initiative was a military strategy to counter Beijing and Russia.
Stillwell said that “without security, you can’t have trade” and prosperity is impossible. But the U.S. “has never and never will seek domination” in the region, he added.
“There has to be a security element. Nobody is better suited to it than the U.S. mostly because we include others in that security apparatus in terms of allies and partners. The fact that they are like-minded is reinforcing and tells us that we are doing something right,” he said.
The United States has been shoring up relations with allies and taking a higher military profile in the region under its Indo-Pacific concept, an all-encompassing vision that seeks to focus on rule of law, freedom of navigation and open markets that Beijing regards as directed against it.
China’s smaller neighbors including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia contest Beijing’s claims of ownership of almost all of the strategically important South China Sea. Beijing has asserted its claim by building seven islands and equipping them with military runways, missile defense systems and outposts.
Stillwell, who is en route to Bangkok for regional summits with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the grouping should have resisted moves to militarize the South China Sea.
“This is your turf, this is your place. Vietnam has done a good job of pushing back. I would think that regarding ASEAN centrality … (the grouping) would join Vietnam to resist actions that are destabilizing and effecting security,” he said.
Stilwell acknowledged the bloc doesn’t want to have to take sides between the two superpowers.
“I ask my ASEAN counterparts what their alternate plan was in this world where we like not to have to choose. I think the U.S. has done a great job in standing up at great political cost to ourselves,” he added.
The South China Sea territorial row is expected to again be a source of friction at the meetings in Bangkok next week. ASEAN has been unable to forge a strong stance on the issue due to objection from China’s allies such as Cambodia.
Stillwell said a code of conduct being negotiated between China and ASEAN to govern the disputed seas should comply with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to protect countries’ economic interests and ensure “orderly movement in the use of the oceans.”
Even though the U.S. has not ratified the law, he said “we do comply and we enforce it.”