Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons

Executive Summary:

Ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific region will be the primary foreign policy challenge for the United States and liberal nations over the next generation. Doing so successfully will provide the greatest economic and political opportunities for the next quarter century. Conversely, a failure to maintain stability, support liberal regimes, create cooperative regional relations, and uphold norms and standards of international behavior will lead to a region, and world, of greater uncertainty, insecurity, and instability.

Due to its economic strength, military power, and political dynamism, the Indo-Pacific will be the world's most important region in coming decades, and its significance will be felt throughout the globe. Since the end of World War II, it has transformed itself into the world's economic powerhouse, yet has also witnessed a struggle between tides of liberalism, authoritarianism, and even totalitarianism. It remains riven by distrust, territorial disputes, ethnic tensions, and painful historical memories.

The Indo-Pacific's unique geography makes the balance of regional security most vulnerable in its "commons": the open seas, air lanes, and cyber networks that link the region together and to the world. Given the importance of the Indo-Pacific commons to the continued prosperity and stability of the region, the policy objectives of the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies and partners should be to:

  • Ensure access to the Indo-Pacific commons for all nations
  • Deter or contain conflict in the commons
  • Maintain credible military capabilities that can deter or defeat the most likely threats to regional stability
  • Encourage the evolution of liberal-democratic norms that will help spread freedom and lead to cooperative behavior in service of the above

The overriding goal of this strategy is to create a security environment that enhances stability and prosperity and does not require the use of U.S. or allied military power.

The interests of the United States and its allies and partners lie in protecting the Indo-Pacific commons from any disruption that would cause political tension or conflict, adversely affect global economic activity, or hinder the access of any nation to the rest of the region and globe for political or military reasons. However, as a result of China's military buildup in particular, the United States and its allies can no longer be assured of maintaining regional superiority of forces either numerically or, eventually, qualitatively. The comprehensive buildup of Chinese military power should be recognized as a tool for the broader geopolitical expansion of Chinese influence, providing the means necessary to achieve regional acceptance of Chinese aims, however those may be defined in the future.

At the same time, security in the Indo-Pacific region must not be reduced to hedging against China's rise or limited to attempting to shape Chinese behavior, but rather must be focused on the Indo-Pacific commons as a whole. Therefore, America's strategy should have three parts: an enhanced, superior, forward-based U.S. presence in the region; an innovative new approach to allies and partners; and a political goal of helping create a more liberal Indo-Pacific region.

Our regional strategy must be based on U.S. forces maintaining their forward presence with superior power projection capabilities in the Indo- Pacific region, responding to disruptions, and mitigating uncertainty. To do so, a forward-based military force structure in the Pacific must focus on the power projection capabilities and weapons systems most appropriate for defeating potential adversaries' key strengths, and it must be postured to increase U.S. forward presence in the Indo-Pacific in both peacetime and times of conflict. This includes ensuring control of the undersea realm through an increased U.S. attack submarine force, increasing the number of forward-deployed BMD surface combatants, enhancing U.S. Air Force forward presence in the region, and maintaining and increasing comprehensive cyber and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

Military capability, however, is only one part of a strategy for security in the Indo-Pacific commons. The United States should also pursue a new political strategy that explicitly links together both its close partners and strategically important nations that increasingly share common concerns. Conceptually, this new strategic arrangement can be thought of as a set of "concentric triangles." The outer triangle links Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia; the inner triangle connects Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. The outer triangle should serve as the anchor for security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, as well as for U.S. policy in the region. The inner triangle will play a unique role in enhancing littoral security and focusing on the "inner commons" of the lower South China Sea.

The final leg of this strategy must focus on the overall political environment in the Indo-Pacific. This new strategy for security in the Indo-Pacific commons is not designed explicitly to promote democracy, liberalism, or a freedom agenda. It aims to be a prudent strategy for ensuring stability and the interests of nations that contribute to regional prosperity, including the United States. For this reason, it must be as realistic about the type of regional environment that will promote stability as it is about the means to be used to counter disruptive influences. However, it is clear that liberally inclined nations are more likely to work together to provide public goods, uphold regional security, and cooperate in resolving regional issues. Encouraging a more liberal Indo-Pacific region is therefore a political goal as well as a strategy.

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Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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