The United States has said the region is increasingly confronted by a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic and security interests.
In a report on its Indo-Pacific strategy released yesterday, the US Defence Department said China, as it continues its economic and military ascendance, "seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and ultimately global pre-eminence in the long term".
It called China a "revisionist power" that, under the Chinese Communist Party leadership, undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.
It also characterised Russia as a "revitalised malign actor" that uses economic, diplomatic and military means to achieve influence in the Indo-Pacific region, and North Korea as a "rogue state" that will continue to be a security challenge for the US and its allies, partners and competitors until "final, fully verifiable denuclearisation" is achieved.
In response to the challenges, the US wants to build a network of trilateral partnerships and will continue to support multilateral institutions like Asean as part of its strategy to achieve the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the report said.
It will also encourage intra-Asian security relationships - such as through new defence agreements and enhanced exercises - as it believes that greater burden sharing will strengthen the ability to deter conflict and increase the flexibility to respond to challenges.
"As we weave together these partnerships with purpose, a networked security architecture - with its shared values, habits of cooperation, and compatible and complementary capabilities - will form a strong, free and open fabric that knits the region together, preserving sovereignty and regional peace and stability," it said.
In tandem with the report, Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan delivered a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday that mapped out key aspects of the strategy. The Indo-Pacific is the US' "priority theatre", he said, asserting that the US has a "natural presence" in the region as a Pacific nation.
The Indo-Pacific, as defined by America, stretches from the west coast of continental US to India and straddles the Pacific and Indian oceans.
As part of efforts to promote a networked region, the report said the Pentagon was "strongly emphasising trilateral mechanisms" like the South Korea-Japan-US partnership, or between US, Japan and India.
Citing the Asean-US maritime exercise as an example of multilateral engagement, it said the drill will take place in Bangkok in September.
China has been wary of the Indo-Pacific strategy concept that was first articulated by US President Donald Trump in November 2017.
While the full name of the concept is the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy", Chinese scholars see it as a means to constrain China's rise.
Yesterday, Nanjing University international relations expert Zhu Feng expressed worry over the Pentagon report, which he said "unambiguously reveals America's new China definition - China and the US competing, a free world and a very communist world, China's economy as very predatory".
"That kind of redefinition of China is really very misleading and very risky. It will keep China cornered and (constrict) the space in which both players can constructively handle their disagreements," he warned.