Rencontre Diplo’ #3 The United-States and the Indo-Pacific – Key Considerations

For the third conference of the Diplomacy Cycle, SPDS had the honour to welcome the US Naval Attaché to France, Captain Thomas R. Winkler. His explanations helped the students understand the American point of view, stance, and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Geographically speaking, the US perceives the Indo-Pacific as a very diverse region comprising thirty-six countries from the East coast of Africa to the West coast of the United States. The region presents a unique strategic context since among these countries, five are nuclear powers and seven of them rank among the ten largest armies on earth.

Our guest began his speech by reminding us how busy the Indo-Pacific is: it is a region with massive flows, including through undersea transmission cables, and heavy maritime traffic. Indeed, 16 out of the 20 biggest container ports in the world are located in the Indo-Pacific, adding that the South Chinese Sea concentrates one third of global shipping. According to him, the blockage of the Suez Canal, a strategic maritime route for world trade, by the container ship Ever Given in March 2021 was an illustration of how fragile and volatile maritime liaisons are. 

In 2017, President Donald Trump announced the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ doctrine, which is based on four principles, as stated in the Department of State’s 2019 document: 

  1. Respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations; 
  2. Peaceful resolution of disputes;
  3. Free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity;
  4. Adherence to international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight.

These priorities for the Indo-Pacific can also be found in three core documents, namely the National Security Strategy (2017, signed by the US President), the National Defence Strategy (2018, signed by the Secretary of Defence), and the National Military Strategy (2018). 

According to Captain Winkler, these principles have several concrete implications: 

First, politically speaking, they result in a strong commitment to establish partnerships and alliances in the Indo-Pacific – hence, the renewed interest for the QUAD alliance (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia), a partnership launched in 2004 following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in order to better coordinate disaster relief efforts. It is therefore an alliance that focuses on advancing practical cooperation, beyond the sole military arena. Moreover, the US has launched new partnerships, such as AUKUS. Contrary to the QUAD, AUKUS is an enhanced trilateral security partnership formed by Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom which aims to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, the long-standing bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are of utmost importance in the US strategy, as they are seen as “unique and complementary” according to our guest.

Secondly, regarding the economic domain, the US encourages regional cooperation to ensure a free international system. In that perspective, the US recognises the key importance of multilateral arenas in the region, such as the ASEAN.

Thirdly, enforcing these principles requires a strong military presence. As an illustration of the US increasing commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the decentralized unified combatant command in the Pacific Ocean was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command in 2018. This command is the largest one comprising more than 300 000 troops, 200 aircraft, 2000 ships, and submarines. This strong military presence allows the US to regularly carry out military exercises in partnership with other allies in the region. In this perspective, a multilateral exercise took place in November 2021 in the Philippines sea to demonstrate naval interoperability and joint commandment to promote the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Alongside military exercises, US military vessels do regular patrols in order to re-state the “freedom of navigation” under international law, and as a way to counter Chinese claims in the South Chinese Sea. Interestingly, Captain Winkler explained that the US shares much information about these islands (namely the ones being militarised by the Chinese) since it considers that the issue needs to be public in order to be better addressed. 

Regarding the US-France relationship in the region, Captain Winkler affirmed that the US fully recognizes France as being an Indo-Pacific country, explaining why the two countries are regularly doing joint military exercises – the last one took place off the coast of Japan in May 2021. Obviously, Captain Winkler had to answer several questions regarding the brutal end of the contract between Naval Group and Australia – instead, the Australian government decided to buy US nuclear submarines. He insisted on the fact that it was first and foremost a sovereign Australian decision to end this contract. However, he acknowledged that the communication around the announcement of AUKUS was poorly managed, hence President Biden’s’ excuses to President Macron at the G20 in Rome (‘What we did was clumsy’). More importantly, Captain Winkler reassured us that this event has not impacted the strong military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific between the two countries.

The speaker then discussed the role of the EU  in the Indo-Pacific. According to him, it seems that the US is in favour of a more coordinated presence of European countries in the region because these efforts are viewed as complementary to US ones. Therefore, the Americans welcomed the recent publication of the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific (September 2021). Perhaps surprisingly, Captain Winkler also insisted on the fact that the US strategy excludes no nation, including China. He recognised that his country considers China as a strategic competitor, underlining that this does not mean that confrontation is inevitable: there is a willingness to find common ground in areas of mutual interest. However, one must admit that there are some elements of “containment” towards China in the US strategy. 

To sum up, Captain Winkler concluded his intervention by saying that the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific is not a strategy of confrontation but aims at promoting a balance between cooperation, pragmatism, and idealism.

About the speaker:

After graduating from the University of Virginia (B.A. in history and a minor in economics), Thomas Winkler joined the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1996. He was designated as Naval Aviator in December 1999 and joined Strike Fighter Squadron 82 (VFA-82) for his first operational tour in 2000. From August 2005 to November 2007, Winkler served with the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (the Blue Angels). He supported the Navy’s recruiting efforts and flew in 70 air shows in the United States, Canada, and The Netherlands.

In 2008, Winkler reported to VFA-83 in Virginia Beach, Virginia for duty as a squadron Department Head. From 2008-2010, he deployed twice aboard USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN-69) and flew combat missions in the Central Command Area of Responsibility.

In 2010, Winkler studied French at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. In 2012, he completed the Defense Strategy & Management course at the French War College in Paris (l’Ecole de Guerre).

In 2012, Winkler joined VFA-87 as the Executive Officer and he took over as the Commanding Officer in April 2014. Winkler commanded the squadron during a nine-month deployment aboard USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH (CVN-77) in support of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Following his command tour, Winkler served as the first U.S. Navy liaison officer imbedded in the French Navy Staff at the newly constructed French military headquarters in southwest Paris. During this tour, Winkler was selected to be the Naval Attaché to France. Prior to joining the Defense Attaché Office in Paris in 2020, Winkler completed the French Higher Military Studies Course (le Centre des hautes études militaires). This high-level course prepares 25 French officers per year for advancement to Flag rank. As the Naval Attaché, Winkler shapes and implements bilateral cooperation with France, and is the advisor on all matters related to the Indo-Pacific.

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