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Recap: U.S. Policy in the Indo-Pacific: Standing by Our Allies
“My experience is that you recognize a cold war when you are in one.”
That is how A.B. Culvahouse, U.S. Ambassador to Australia (2019-2021), started his Ashe Lecture on March 6 at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. As Pres. Ronald Reagan’s White House Counsel, he would know as he was there when the president told former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.”
Culvahouse was at the top levels of government during an era of ongoing concerns and tension. It’s from his experience that he believes the U.S. is not yet in a cold war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“We are not yet at that knife’s-edge environment where a single miscalculation can result in a cataclysmic outcome.”
The Indo-Pacific is the Frontline of the Great Strategic Competition
The PRC has the world’s largest navy and claims they own 62 percent of the South China Sea. An estimated $3.4 trillion in commerce transits annually through the South China Sea with the majority of the supply chain originating or passing through the region.
The Indo-Pacific region is also home to half the world’s population and two-thirds of the world’s economy.
“We have work to do in the Indo-Pacific to avoid a cold war”
The PRC’s potential to invade Taiwan militarily is a leading flash point in the region. The U.S.’s long-standing statement is that it recognizes “one China,” but Taiwan should not be unified by force. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. reserves the right to arm Taiwan in order to defend itself, something that the U.S. currently does.
The U.S.’s top allies in the region are Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. These allies, along with others, are the U.S.’s strategic advantage. When asked how the U.S. should respond to the PRC threat, Culvahouse had a simple answer – the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine. If the U.S. stopped that support, it would dismay and discourage American allies throughout the Indo-Pacific.
“Bipartisan collective deterrence is the most important aspect of our Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Culvahouse’ s Ambassadorship to Australia
When Culvahouse first arrived as ambassador to Australia, the U.S.’s diplomatic talking points regarding the PRC were regulated, referring to them as a “strategic competitor.” Throughout his tenure, which consisted of the first years of the Covid pandemic, his public comments’ tenor, tone, and frequency intensified. At public events, he would list the grievances with the PRC, trying to hold them accountable.
Every U.S. ambassador, including Culvahouse, has stated that Australia would not be left alone when it came to PRC aggression. It has been the U.S.’s obligation since the 1951 treaty with Australia, yet it is a fear that is still with Australians today.
Partnership in the Indo-Pacific
The PRC threat in the region is growing, but Culvahouse claims that U.S. allies’ combined deterrent capacity is matching that growth.
“Deterrence enables diplomacy.”
The military of the U.S. and 37 other nations train in the most important war game off the coast of Queensland in Australia.
Culvahouse stated the U.S. must continue to cultivate and nurture its allies and partners in the region. During his time as ambassador, he had ambassadors from other countries stating that the more confident and forward-leaning the U.S. is, the greater the commitment of it allies and partners will be. As the largest economy and most capable military in the world, “We are in the game whether we suit up or not.”
“In preserving a free, open, and prosperous Indo- Pacific, the U.S. must mount that same level of diplomatic and military commitment and deterrence in this not yet a cold war.”
You can view the full lecture here.