The United States military’s largest region of operations will now be known as “Indo-Pacific Command” instead of “Pacific Command,” a symbolic gesture that underscores U.S. commitment to the Indian Ocean region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced the name change Wednesday in Hawaii during a ceremony that officially installed Admiral Philip S. Davidson as the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific.
“Over many decades, this command has repeatedly adapted to changing circumstances, and today carries that legacy forward as America focuses west,” Mattis said.
PACOM is one of six geographic “Unified Combatant Commands” in the U.S. military. It is by far the largest — stretching from Antarctica to the North Pole, and from California to the Indian Ocean.
The name change is mainly symbolic. U.S. officials say the change will not be accompanied by any movement of U.S. troops or assets and does not reflect a fundamental strategic shift. It will also not result in any re-drawing of the command’s area of responsibility, which already includes the Indo-Pacific.
Rather, U.S. officials say the name change is meant to better describe the existing state of affairs in Asia. Pentagon officials have increasingly referred to the “Indo-Pacific” rather than the “Asia Pacific”an acknowledgement of what they see as the growing importance of the Indian Ocean region.
“It is affixing a more expressive and accurate name to U.S. Pacific Command to better reflect the realities of its relationships and missions,” says James Kraska, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “It is also a function of an increasingly warm relationship with India.”
M. Taylor Fravel, an international relations professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the name change is also likely intended to signal support for the U.S. administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
The Trump administration has spoken relatively little about the new Asia strategy. That stands in contrast to the Obama administration, which attempted to carry out a highly publicized “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific.
“Without a more detailed description of the strategy, it is hard to tell if resources beyond those outlined in Obama’s rebalance strategy will be committed to the region or not,” Fravel says.
Davidson is replacing Admiral Harry Harris, the White House’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
As the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific, Davidson will oversee an expanded effort to deal with China’s growing assertiveness in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, Mattis said the U.S. military will continue sailing ships near disputed islands in the South China Sea, despite Beijing’s increased complaints about the operations.
Earlier this week, two U.S. Navy warships sailed near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam. China responded by sending two ships to confront the U.S. vessels.
Last week, the Pentagon rescinded an invitation for China to participate in the RIMPAC maritime exercises later this year, citing China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
Mattis is now headed for Singapore, where he will take part in the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of Asian defense and other leaders.