US Vice President Mike Pence told leaders of Southeast Asian nations on Thursday there is no place for “empire and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region, a comment seen as a reference to China’s rise.
Pence did not mention China in his remarks at the opening of a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore, but he stressed all countries in the region should be allowed to prosper.
“Like you, we seek an Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, can prosper and thrive – secure in our sovereignty, confident in our values, and growing stronger together,” he said. “We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific.”
Pence said Washington had taken action to promote this vision, including steps to spur private investment in infrastructure and the pursuit of trade that is “free, fair, and reciprocal”.
The vice president also highlighted the United States’ “pressure campaign” on North Korea, its “commitment to uphold the freedom of the seas and skies”, and determination to ensure that Southeast Asian nations are secure in their sovereign borders, on land, at sea, and in the digital world.
Pence’s comments follow a major speech in October in which he flagged a tougher approach by Washington towards Beijing, accusing China of “malign” efforts to undermine US President Donald Trump and reckless military actions in the South China Sea.
The United States has conducted a series of “freedom of navigation” exercises in the disputed South China Sea, angering Beijing, which claims the sea as its own.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the maritime region, which is thought to be rich in natural resources and is a major global shipping route.
Pence’s comments came as a US report on Wednesday said China’s armed forces could match the United States’ by 2050.
Beijing has made significant advancements in hypersonic weapons, cyber abilities, and space defence, said the report. China increased its military budget this year to $175bn, an 8.1 percent increase compared with 2017.
Congress tasked the National Defence Strategy Commission to look at Trump’s sweeping National Defence Strategy (NDS), which highlighted a new era of “Great Power competition” with Moscow and Beijing.
The panel found just as the US military faced budget cuts and diminishing military advantages, nations such as China and Russia are pursuing build-ups aimed “at neutralising US strengths”.
“America’s military superiority – the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security – has eroded to a dangerous degree,” the commission’s report said.
The US’ focus on counterinsurgency operations has resulted in it slipping in other warfighting areas such as missile defence, cyber and space operations, and anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
“The US military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict,” the commission found.
“It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”
Though the Pentagon this year has a budget of more than US$700bn – far more than Russia and China combined – the commission said the sum is still “clearly insufficient” to meet the goals laid out in the NDS.