Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Hawaii on Wednesday to attend the Change of Command ceremony for Admiral Phil Davidson. However, Davidson did not assume command of what so many have come to affectionately refer to as PACOM. Mattis announced during the ceremony that U.S. Pacific Command will now be known as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Seen as the latest move in a larger strategic pivot to address China’s growing power assertions in the region, Mattis said he directed the name change in recognition that “all nations large and small are essential to the region, in order to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace.”
Secretary James N. Mattis, Secretary for @DeptOfDefense, announces the renaming of U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to recognize the increasing connectivity between the Indian & Pacific Oceans and America’s commitment to the #IndoPacific! pic.twitter.com/PXk8eeRoWW
— U.S. Pacific Command (@PacificCommand) May 30, 2018
U.S. Pacific Command, which is responsible for all U.S. military activity in the greater Pacific region, has about 375,000 civilian and military personnel assigned to its area of responsibility, which includes India. “Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability,” Mattis said during his speech. “In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.”
The renaming does not mean additional assets will be sent to the region at this time, but rather recognizes India’s increasing military relevance for the U.S. In 2016, the U.S. and India signed an agreement governing the use of each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, a step toward building defense ties as they seek to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China.
The U.S. is also looking to tap into India’s fairly robust defense market — establishing itself as India’s No. 2 weapons supplier, closing $15 billion worth of deals over the last decade.
Mattis has been pushing for a waiver for countries like India, after President Trump signed a law last year which said that any country trading with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors would face sanctions.
“I think India and the relationship with the United States is the potentially most historic opportunity we have in the 21st-century and I intend to pursue that quite rigorously,” Davidson, the incoming head of the command, said in April, but regional specialist fear that without the implementation of much broader strategy that the renaming serves as little more than a symbolic gesture. The U.S. continues to blow more smoke at the China problem, but the accompanying long term fire in the belly has yet to materialize.
America is tied to the political will that comes with a near constant election cycle and changes in leadership. China has no such limitations and can make far reaching and broad strategic moves on a somewhat epic scale. President Xi — with recent moves to consolidate his power — has effectively entrenched himself in the driver’s seat of China’s global plans for years to come. Love or hate Trump and his cabinet, they will not be in that same seat 6 years from now and these pivots towards Asia may fall away again. It will be important to monitor the ensuing moves and strategic planning that come out of the newly minted Indo-Pacific Command.
Featured image: Admiral John C. Aquilino, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, greets Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis upon his arrival to Honolulu, Hawaii, May 29, 2018. (DoD Photo by Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)