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Foreign Policy

The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Obstacles

Oct 10, 2018
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

Since proposing “a free and open Indo-Pacific” vision in 2017, the Trump administration has turned the vision into an “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. It will most likely be further deepened and strengthened in the near future. However, it is too early to see the prospects and impact of this strategy.

The domestic political chaos in the United States may be the first and foremost challenge facing the Indo-Pacific Strategy. As a result, the US diplomatic and security team is not stable or complete. The post of Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have changed two or three times. According to the Washington Post analysis, as of October 1, 2018, of 709 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, there were 152 vacancies with no nominees, including Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The US is also experiencing a contest between anti-institutional, anti-traditional forces represented by President Trump, and establishment forces. To a large extent, this has caused confusion in political decision-making.

The countries in the region seek a balanced policy rather than a policy of choosing a side, which constrains the implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Countries in the region have developed complex mentalities about the US’ deep involvement in regional affairs. They welcome the United States to engage in Indo-Pacific affairs and regard it as an important external force balancing China's rise. Meanwhile, they also wish to maintain and develop good relations with China in order to enjoy the dividends from China's economy. In August, I travelled to South Korea and Japan and got the deep impression of the economic interdependence among the three countries. Therefore, Asian countries are reluctant to choose between the two giants. Balanced diplomacy is their priority. Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration, pointed out that no country wanted to choose one between China and the United States. Moreover, in view of the "America First" principle and the instability of Trump’s foreign policy, the countries in the region have certain doubts about the determination and commitment of the Trump administration to promote the Indo-Pacific strategy, and many of them are taking a wait-and-see approach.

In order to fulfill his election promises as soon as possible, President Trump has risked damaging relationships with allies and partners, creating problems on issues like trade and NATO military expenditure. As a result, European allies even claimed that they would bid farewell to the days of depending on the United States, and called for European solidarity against Trump’s irrational behavior. Moreover, Trump's foreign policy has encouraged US allies and partners to strengthen their relations with China in order to hedge against his administration. It can be said that the Trump administration's diplomacy has produced two effects: one is to enhance the unity among US allies, such as between European countries and Japan, the other is to deepen their cooperation with China.

Last but not the least, China’s development and China-US relations put constraints on the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The strategy aims to address the challenges posed by China’s rise. But this does not mean that the United States will launch a full-scale confrontation with China. In fact, the US strategy toward China is still a combination of competition and cooperation. The "Integrated Country Strategy: China", released by the US State Department on 29 August, emphasizes that there is “no more important bilateral relationship than that between the United States and China”. China's growing economic, military, and diplomatic clout affects a broad range of U.S. interests. The two sides have common interests, as well as competitive, even conflicting interests. The mission of the US Integrated Country Strategy is to strengthen the cooperative elements of this bilateral relationship while ensuring American values and interests are effectively defended in the face of Chinese competition on the global stage. Clearly, the Integrated Country Strategy reflects "both the cooperative and competitive elements" of the relationship. In addition, countries in the region do not want the Sino-US relationship to breakdown. Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at Kanagawa University, pointed out “the increasing US awareness to confront China is not necessarily a good thing for Japan and other countries...How to make the [fluctuating] US-China relationship land softly has become an important topic for the entire region”. Therefore, when implementing the strategy, the United States should deal with China prudently. It needs to consider China's strategic concerns and avoid giving the impression that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is there to contain China.

In short, it is not easy for the Trump administration to advance the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The prospects of the strategy and its impact on regional peace, stability, and prosperity remains to be seen.

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