Remarks by Ambassador Haas at Bay of Bengal Conversation Panel “Defining Competition in the Indo-Pacific”

October 9, 2023 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished High Commissioners and Ambassadors, esteemed guests, researchers, and analysts from the Centre for Governance Studies, I am honored and excited to stand before you today representing the United States as we examine a subject of immense global importance – “Defining Competition in the Indo-Pacific Region.”    

This panel exemplifies the collaborative spirit that is indispensable in navigating the challenges and opportunities that define this dynamic region.

Why is the Indo-Pacific Region Important?

Before we undertake the task of defining competition in the Indo-Pacific, first we must ask an important question:  What is at stake?  Why is it important that we define competition in this region?   

In my view the stakes are high indeed.   

When President Joe Biden released the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, he said:  “The future of each of our nations – and indeed the world – depends upon a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead.” 

A quick survey of the state of the region makes it clear why.    

Stretching from the Pacific coastline of the United States to the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world.  

It is home to more than half of the world’s people and nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy.  Half of all global trade passes through its waters.  The region supports more than three million American jobs and is the source of nearly $900 billion in foreign direct investment in the United States.  But this is larger than the United States – what happens here affects the entire world. 

And of course, the people of the region are the largest stakeholders.    

They want more and better opportunities. 

They want more chances to connect – within their nations, between their nations, and around the world.  

They want to be better prepared for crises like the pandemic and climate change. 

They want peace and stability. 

And the people throughout the Indo-Pacific also want democracy and for their human rights to be respected. 

So, what does all this mean? 

First and foremost, it underscores the notion, and here I’d like to quote Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, that, quote:  “the Indo-Pacific region must be an area of peace and prosperity for all.  Our vision for the region is to have a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive region.”  End quote. 

The United States wholeheartedly agrees. 

Looking to the future, it is in all of our interests to protect that freedom, that openness, and I’d also like to add that diversity, that make the Indo-Pacific such a dynamic engine of growth and prosperity, not just for the citizens of the region, but for the entire world.  

What we can’t allow is for the strategic challenge from authoritarian powers – powers whose actions would snuff out the sovereignty and autonomy of the nations that make up this region, and who would shut down that prosperity and diversity– to go unmet.   

And that is why the United States has developed its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and why all of us have had to think carefully in the last several years about how to design our collective approach.  

My view is that “competition” in the Indo-Pacific is not about forcing countries to choose.  It’s about offering an alternative vision based on respect, prosperity, and partnership. 

Here, as part of a panel comprised of very good friends, I’d like to take a moment to compare how we’ve collectively tackled the challenge of devising our strategies for the Indo-Pacific region.  

As we embark on this comparison of the strategies articulated by our respective nations, it is heartening to observe the striking commonalities of our shared vision.  

We collectively champion a resolute commitment to upholding a rules-based international order, fostering robust economic integration, and safeguarding the sanctity of maritime commons. 

We are also collectively committed to relying on our alliances and partnerships with each other, and others in the region, to achieve these aims.  This is absolutely central to our approach. 

Through deliberate, multilateral endeavors, we seek to create an environment that is conducive not only to growth, but to sustainable and inclusive prosperity, to security, and to the protection of sovereignty that extends to all Indo-Pacific nations, be they large coastal states or small islands. 

As Secretary of State Blinken recently said, America’s alliances and partnerships are our greatest strategic asset.   

Indeed, our alliances with critical security providers like Japan, Australia, the UK, and Canada have been key underlying enablers of growth and prosperity since the end of World War II.  Our growing relationship with India, other regional partners, and our AUKUS endeavor will greatly strengthen that effort. 

Here I would like to note Bangladesh recently released its own Indo-Pacific Outlook, which outlined a number of important principles, and the way Bangladesh sees its role in the region.    

We applaud Bangladesh’s vision of a “free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” and note significant overlap with our own, including on issues such as freedom of navigation and overflight; open, transparent, and rules-based multilateral systems; and environmental resilience. 

Here we also underscore that just as we seek a free and open region, we believe we can only truly fulfill these visions when we apply those principles domestically as well.   

As liberal democracies, our approaches also recognize the importance of human rights to safeguarding peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

At the very core of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy lies an unwavering dedication to promoting and safeguarding these ideas.  

These values are not mere rhetorical constructs.  They are the very foundation, or more specifically, the healthy, vibrant roots from which social wellbeing, human security, economic prosperity, and state sovereignty grows.   

History shows societies thrive when individuals are accorded the freedom to express their opinions, participate meaningfully in the governance of their nations, and enjoy the full spectrum of their fundamental rights. 

And we have seen that story play out in this region repeatedly.  There are many more examples of democratic economies taking off, and democratic nations’ truly coming into their own, than there are of nations thriving under autocracy or under the shadow of their more powerful neighbors.   

Looking around the region, nations such as Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia demonstrate that when people are secure, when their rights are protected, when they can access information and contribute to how they’re governed, they are better connected to the global economy, feel empowered to pursue opportunities, and live up to their potential and what they can achieve.  

In short:  it is through the steadfast adherence to these bedrock principles that we lay the foundation for enduring, sustainable development and the harmonious coexistence of nations. 

We encourage Bangladesh to recognize the importance of these principles in its own past as it develops its own outlook. 

The discussion of partnerships and of democracy in the Indo-Pacific points us to a consideration of the need to ensure a region comprised of diverse, sovereign, independent states where no one country dominates.  

As we contemplate the region, and especially South Asia, we are met with a host of nations with long and rich histories, yet ones that are undeniably forward-looking in their aspirations. 

Many of these nations embody the spirit of strategic autonomy and sovereignty.  This is something we recognize and respect.   

We believe this presents opportunities for diverse partnerships to tackle a range of regional and global issues, including with the United States.   

This is what Secretary Blinken recently referred to as “diplomatic variable geometry:”  We start with the problem that we need to solve and we work back from there – assembling the group of partners that’s the right size and the right shape to address it.  We’re intentional about determining the combination that’s truly fit for purpose.

Few regions present as many such opportunities as South Asia; and those opportunities go beyond the region as well.   

A good example of this is the groundbreaking effort we announced at the G20 connect India to Europe through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel.  This initiative will spur opportunities and investment across two continents. 

Only by respecting and protecting diversity in the Indo-Pacific, and here in South Asia, can we ensure we have the various perspectives, skillsets, and national capabilities to tackle shared challenges.  

It is our hope to nurture relationships founded on mutual respect, shared interests, and a collaborative spirit that advances the common good, not just for our nations, but for the entire region and beyond.

As we chart our course through the coming decades in the Indo-Pacific, we must not lose sight of the evolving nature of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s influence.  

The Belt and Road Initiative, along with the PRC’s expansive maritime ambitions, have signaled a new epoch in the dynamics of this region. 

And this brings us to the most pressing strategic challenge to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific:  authoritarian powers trying to alter the fundamental rules of the road in international affairs.   

We must approach this juncture with unyielding vigilance, aware that unchecked PRC influence may challenge the sovereignty and strategic autonomy of Indo-Pacific nations.   

This, in turn, could precipitate instability and impede the prosperity we collectively seek.  

Separate but related, Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call to the world.  It demonstrates that the ideals we aspire to, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but globally, cannot be taken for granted, rather they must be defended.  

We, like many others, are greatly encouraged to know that Bangladesh fully understands this principle and its implications for this region.  In April, Prime Minister Hasina, along with her Japanese counterpart, stated “the war in Ukraine constitutes a violation of international law, in particular of the UN Charter, and is a serious threat to the international order based on the rule of law, with ramifications well beyond Europe, including in the Indo-Pacific.”   

This was a strong acknowledgement of the need to work together to preserve a rules-based order against those who seek to undermine it.  

When it comes to the PRC, we openly acknowledge it is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, potentially, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.  

At the same time, China is integral to the global economy.  The United States and the PRC can and should work together on global challenges like macroeconomic stability, climate change, health security, and food security. 

The United States will conduct itself as a reasonable leader.  We do not seek conflict.  We do not seek a Cold War.  Let me repeat, we do not seek a Cold War.     

But we will be unabashed in promoting our vision of a free, open, secure, and prosperous world and what we have to offer communities of nations. 

These include investments that are designed not to foster dependency, but to alleviate burdens and help nations become self-sufficient.  

Partnerships not to create political obligations, but mutually beneficial relationships. 

We will not illegally fish in other nations’ waters.  We do not militarize islands and then claim an economic zone around them.  We will not send merchant vessels to harass the sailors of other countries.   Nor will we use debt as leverage to undermine other nations’ sovereignty. 

We don’t expect every country to have the exact same assessment of China as we do.   

We know that many countries – including the United States – have vital economic or people-to-people ties with China that they want to preserve.   

This is why we firmly believe that “competition” in the Indo-Pacific is not about forcing countries to choose.  It’s about offering an alternative vision based on respect, prosperity, and partnership.

In closing, it’s my hope that our definition of competition in this region allows us to renew our sense of purpose and reinvigorate our commitment to a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific.  

Together, we stand as stewards of stability, prosperity, and inclusivity.  By championing democracy, human rights, and open dialogue, we pave the way for a region that not only endures but thrives.  

Through the recognition of our sovereign foreign policy prerogatives, we forge partnerships that based on mutual respect, shared aspirations, and, especially in the case of our friends on this panel, partnerships and alliances that transcend borders and stand as a testament to our collective commitment to a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific. 

I look forward to hearing from the distinguished envoys from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Japan.   

Thank you.