"There's a lot the Quad can do to be responsive and reactive to the real-world situation without becoming a Pacific NATO."- Mr. Alexander Gray

Usanas Foundation brings you an exclusive interview with Mr Alexander Gray as part of our new 'Quad and Quad Plus Dialogues'.

"There's a lot the Quad can do to be responsive and reactive to the real-world situation without becoming a Pacific NATO."- Mr. Alexander Gray


Usanas Editorial Team

Usanas Foundation presents an exclusive timely interview with Mr Alexander Gray on current policy trajectories of regional and extra-regional countries in the Indo-Pacific. The interview was conducted by Miss Rushali Saha.

Mr Alexander B. Gray is a Co-Founder and Managing Partner at American Global Strategies LLC, an international strategic advisory firm that he co-founded with former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien. His practice focuses on the maritime, defence, and aerospace industries. Mr Gray most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff of the White House National Security Council (NSC), where he was responsible for the National Security Advisor’s Front Office and the budget, personnel, and security functions of the NSC. Previously, he served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for the Defense Industrial Base at the National Economic Council (NEC), the principal Executive Office of the President (EOP) official responsible for matters impacting the defence and manufacturing industrial base, and as Director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security at the NSC.

The transcript of the interview is as follows:

Rushali Saha (RS)- You played a decisive role in shaping the U.S. economic and security policy for Asia under the Trump administration. Looking back, what would you say were the strengths and weaknesses of the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific policy?

Alexander Gray (AG)- I think the most important change that happened in the Trump administration on Indo-Pacific policy, and what would probably be the legacy of the administration that is going to last over many decades, is the clarity with which administration spoke about the challenges of China and the extent to which the administration made China the organizing principle of our National Security Strategy. So, if you look at the National Security Strategy of 2017, National Defence Strategy, Indo-Pacific Strategic framework that was de-classified at the end of the administration is the acknowledgement that great power competition is going to be the foremost challenge facing by the United States ahead. So, I think the best way to explain that in a more operational term is when I came to the White House in January 2017, the main focus of the US government was competition with China—that every agency, from the defence department to the state department, commerce department to the perjury department to the agencies that handled the pension funds for the US retires, the labour department was involved in. We really had an entire whole of government approach to the challenge by China and I think that’s going to be the legacy of the Trump administration. The areas in which we think we could’ve done something differently was messaging, as you know there's a lot of discussion about how Trump spoke about our allies and partners and some of his tweets, some of his personal concerns about border sharing, and different ways our allies interacted with us. What was lost in that discussion was the extent to which the US actually strengthened our Indo-Pacific alliances and partnership to an unprecedented level and you can see that on bilateral bases with US- India strategic partnership, which is the bipartisan success story of the last 20 years. You can see it in Quad with India, Japan, Australia. You could see it with the US-Japan partnership which is at an all-time high of cooperation and collaboration, the US-Taiwan partnership has never been stronger. So, the US- Vietnam relationship continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The Secretary of State Austin Llyod in the last couple of days continues to build upon the success that the Trump administration had that relationship. So, I think what we should have been proactive about explaining to the American people but also to the people of Indo-Pacific just how committed we were to those important alliances and unfortunately in all the media, excitement over tweets, and comments were lost just how dedicated the administration was to our alliances and partnership and I think that was something we definitely could’ve improved up.

RS- Do you see a policy continuity in the current Biden administration’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific?

AG- I think there is a great deal of continuity and I have been very gratified that the approach that President Trump took to China Policy has been continued by President Biden and the best way to judge it empirically is if you look at the administration in the terms of National Security Strategic Guidance which came out a couple of months into the administration although they are still writing their formal National Security Strategy and the interim guidance when you put it up next to the Trump National Security Strategy. There are superficial differences things like climate change, diversity, equity, and inclusion but what you see when you look past superficial differences is the fundamental agreement on the challenge posed by China. That has been manifested in a couple of ways on the economic side. We have seen the Biden administration continue a lot of the economic security focus of the Trump administration. The Taiwan policy has received greater emphasis, perhaps even significant interest and significant expansion, of the relationship with Taiwan. We have seen very high profile moves like supporting some military aircraft landing in Taipei. Some senior US senators visiting Taipei and easing some restrictions on US engagement with Taiwan. Some of them are very positive. Quad—they put a tremendous emphasis on the importance of the Quad. It was with Quad leaders that Biden did one of the heads of state meetings when he assumed office. So, there's been a really positive continuity. I would say one area in which I do see lacking is the defence spending side and the Chinese are very focused as our allies and partners in the region view US defence spending as a metric of our capacity and our willingness to stay in the Indo- Pacific long term to deter potential action against destabilization and aggression and when we watch the defence budget stay stagnate or with rising inflation or actually in real terms go down, it sends a very negative signal both to the Chinese and those in the region concerned about American’s staying power and American commitment. So many of the positive policies of the Trump administration are being continued and it is even more important now to have a full resource military capability. 

RS- How do you view PLA’s military modernization, more specifically naval modernization efforts? Do you see the Chinese expansion of its naval capabilities as a threat to U.S. naval predominance in the region?

AG- The first time I wrote about the issue was in 2010. There was a debate about whether the PLA navy was going to focus on itself or whether it even had ambitions to be a regional power. Well, now a decade later, we are certain The Chinese have invested in the capabilities to deny access to the US and its allies and partners to intervene in the South China Sea, the East China Sea so they certainly have the ambition to become a regional power. China has shown its global ambitions in the maritime sphere with the base in Djibouti and in the Middle East. We have seen ambitious naval bases in the Pacific Islands and Chinese ships are present regularly in the Mediterranean Sea for a joint exercise with Russia. We have seen agreements through BRI as far as Greece in the Balkans. Those are two used agreements that can very quickly go from economic to having a military component. So, it is no longer debatable whether the Chinese have regional ambitions, as these are global ambitions and the concern—that many of us in the government are certain— is that the Chinese navy is not just growing in quantity but in quality as well. So they are spending on enhancing their capabilities, they are growing their proficiency and key skill like sea replenishment, maritime logistics. They are learning how to do flight operations on their carrier. So, for the US navy, along with its allies and partners with India, Japan, and Australia to a certain point, it becomes very dangerous to fall so far below the no of ships with our primary competitor, who is investing in very real anti- access certain denial capabilities with the explicit goal of denying the US and its partners the ability to operate freely right now seas near China. I think by the behaviour of China I just outlined—the scope is going to be much more global. 

RS- Do you think that the Quad’s naval capabilities will be enough to deter aggressive Chinese action in the region?

AG- So, the Quad is an interesting mechanism. I think we are still trying to figure out the dynamics between the four partner countries and what shape it will take. I heard the word Pacific NATO, being used quite a bit and that implies a number of things that have to be qualified. There’s a legal obligation posed on the member of NATO, there’s a headquarter structure, there’s Article 5 that requires a mutual defence. So there are all sorts of very specific impending obligations as NATO members that I don’t think politically anyone has made a decision in Delhi, Tokyo, or in a Canberra or Washington that they want to accept all of the obligations that go along that kind of security architecture and I think what at this point in time makes the most sense for a Quad construct is where the leaders of the like-minded democracies at the Indo- Pacific speak with one voice, political and diplomatic matters impacting the four countries and impacting the region and I think one of thing we learned in the Trump administration was just how much synergy and agreement there is on big binding matters in the Indo Pacific. So, the things like free navigation, freedom from economic coercion, response to the pandemic—there’s really a big picture, kind of liberal, democratic order internationally where there is not much difference between the four countries. I would like to see Quad continuing to be the mechanism for speaking as one united front on this issue. I think what we have to be very worried about is the Quad becoming seen either by China or by the countries of the region as a device for containment of China. I think that causes some significant challenges for statecraft. I would also like to see the Quad use its traditional ways one as a nucleus of a group of additional countries of a ‘Quad Plus’ construct where additional countries join the Quad on various issues. I would like to see Taiwan, South- East Asia, Pacific Islands be able to join the Quad, to join major voices on important issues particularly broader issues like freedom of navigation etc. 

The second way in which the Quad can be very helpful is on the issue of economic coercion. We have seen the Chinese use, economic coercion against countries like Australia. We have seen them use it against the Philippines, Taiwan even Norway after the Nobel prize was awarded to a Chinese dissident. They cut off Taiwanese pineapple, Philippine's bananas, Australia’s wine and Quad could be a launchpad of a response. So, when the Chinese attempt to boycott or cut off economically coerced countries in the region over some political issue, the Quad could be a powerful source to come in and say “we won't allow the economic coercion we will make up for the whatever economic loss Chinese are imposing on that country and prevent you from falling under that economic coercion.” So, I think there’s a lot the Quad can do to be responsive and reactive to the real-world situation without becoming a Pacific NATO.

RS- What are your views on India- US naval bonhomie shaping up within this construct of Quad?

AG- So, I think the India- US relationship from the George W. Bush administration to the Biden administration has really been a successive upward trajectory and a bipartisan consensus in the United States of ties between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy is the biggest story. The interplay between Indians and Americans has brought so much vibrancy to the US and cultural linkages between the two countries. Look at the growing military cooperation particularly in the naval sphere, the Malabar exercises have become so important to project the ability of India to play a major role in upholding the international order in the Indian Ocean. India’s ability to be a force multiplier to those goals throughout the Indian Ocean is visible. So, there's so much positive synergy between the two countries. I think that I said this when I was in the office, the Chinese made their biggest geopolitical blunder in the last 100 years by the way they chose to behave towards India along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) last year. It reminded the Indian public of some of the challenges China posed on Indian security and it also showed Indian political leadership in the public that the United States can offer a positive security partnership on different issues and I think it also reminded the United States that India can be lucratively a useful partner in confronting Chinese aggression across the region. So I think the galvanizing effect of the horrible tragic incident is going to have a lot of lasting repercussions for the positive India- US relationship and coming out of that and watching India’s response particularly on the decision to ban some of the China social media apps actually served as an important example to the United States about some of the economic tools that are available to address Chinese malign activity. So, the relationship—in the context of China and bilaterally—has a lot of positive momentum.

RS- China’s repeated incursion of Taiwan’s airspace and ramping up of military pressure has raised apprehensions that China is inching closer to using violence to resolve the ‘unification’ problem. How would this affect U.S. relations with Taiwan vis-à-vis China?

AG- Any coercion against Taiwan impacts not just the US- Taiwan relations but also is going to have a major impact on China’s global standing and the premise that China is able to be a responsible global stakeholder. I think it’s already failed to stand up to the scrutiny of its own behaviour whether it’s the issue on the LAC, its economic coercion, the intellectual property theft, the behaviour in the South China Sea, and the East-China Sea. I think the last 10 years have shown that China is not a responsible stakeholder. I think if you look at the most recent statements coming from Japan and Australia, there is a growing realization in the region—in even among countries that do not have particularly a strong standing—they do not have any type of security ties that the US has with Taiwan but they are beginning to understand and speak publicly about the challenges that would impact the entire region if coercion is used against Taiwan. There are a number of ways in which China can exercise significant power against Taiwan and we have already seen the very sophisticated means that Beijing has launched to flip the remaining diplomatic allies Taiwan in the Pacific, Africa, Western Hemisphere. We have got to be vigilant about strengthening Taiwan’s self-defence capability—which we have been doing energetically for the last several years—but also, we have to strengthen Taiwan's economic capacity and political capacity to harden itself against Chinese coercion and malign activity. It’s not just the military aspect itself, so I would like to see going back to the Quad one way in which the Quad can be very useful is to serve as a mechanism for providing an alternative if a country like Taiwan faces economic stress due to a boycott from China. The Quad has to set up and provide an alternative source to the economic market. I think that’s the way in which the US and its partner could be constructive in mitigating some of the challenges China is posing right now.

RS- Recently in an article for 1945, you wrote about how the deep sea bed is emerging as an arena for Great power competition. Could you elaborate on what led you to this conclusion and what you think should be the U.S. approach?

AG- This is the issue that does not get enough attention but it's incredibly important. Antarctica, the Arctic, the deep sea, space are areas of global interest. They are not owned by anyone but they have incredible universal value for the world—whether its resources, free naval navigation, scientific inquiry, and the importance of the GPS system for commerce and global navigation. These are all areas where the Chinese are operating in ways that are contrary to liberal international order and free and open Indo- Pacific. So, to give an example, Chinese seeing the deep sea, if you look at both the writing coming out of Science of Strategy, the premiere Chinese military journal or you look at 2018 white paper coming out 0f the Ministry of National Defence, Chinese are speaking of the deep-sea bed which is the floor of the ocean which can its deepest point go over 30,000 feet down. They are talking about an arena of future conflict. They are being very open about seeing an area with a military dimension and I mention the military dimension because most of the discussion is about mining on the deep-sea bed. What is the international regime doing for managing this type of economic activity is important but I think more important right now is China’s exploration of these global commons. They have engaged in a very detailed and very vast exploration. China has engaged in very detailed exploration efforts to map the deep sea of the Indo- Pacific using the submersible hydrographic ships that is a tremendously military activity that feeds into the PLA-N plan to neutralize the US advantage in undersea submarine warfare. We need to be more aggressive do the mapping ourselves. We need to be thinking more proactively and offensively about ensuring that we fully understand the contours of the deeper sea bed so that whenever a conflict takes place, we are not taking by surprise by China’s use of exploration and surveying and potentially using offensive means to dominate the deep-sea bed.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in the webinar belong to the speakers and are not reflective of Usanas Foundation.