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Constraints on U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

Apr 24, 2023
  • Chen Jimin

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

The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States clearly targets China. To be precise, China itself is the single factor that poses the most significant external constraint. This is reflected in three ways:

First is the constraint brought by the duality of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The U.S. has named China as its main competitor in an era of great power competition, and has made “outcompeting China” a major strategic goal or national security strategy. But this does not mean the U.S. wants to engage in a full-fledged confrontation with China, let alone a direct military conflict. The 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy report states that the “pursuit of a constructive, results-oriented relationship between our two countries is an important part of U.S. strategy” in the region.

The U.S. administration under President Joe Biden has proposed an “investment, alliance and competition” policy framework for China, placing greater emphasis on what it calls “responsible” (albeit intense) competition with China and calling for “guardrails” in strategic competition. It also seeks cooperation with China in areas of shared interest. The administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report states that “we will also seek to manage our competition with China responsibly” and seek cooperation with China in areas such as climate change and non-proliferation.

It is clear that the U.S. is seeking effective competition rather than confrontation with China. In other words, the U.S. strategy is a combination of checks, balances and containment, tempered with engagement and management. Given the features of the U.S. strategy and its competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy needs to be calibrated and measured to fend off a tragedy in great power politics.

 The second constraint is China’s national capacity and awareness of what the U.S. is doing. China has been closely following the Indo-Pacific Strategy since its inception, without rushing to stake out a position. As the Indo-Pacific Strategy has unfolded under President Biden, China has maintained continuity and consistency as its tone has intensified. It has gradually revealed its position. In China’s view, the U.S. strategy is a manifestation of hegemony and power politics, as well as a product of Cold War thinking intended to undermine regional peace, stability and integration — and thus to contain China’s development.

At a news conference for the Two Sessions in 2022, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out that the Indo-Pacific Strategy was becoming synonymous with bloc politics, its real purpose being the creation of a NATO-style regional alliance.

In March this year, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, speaking at his first news conference during the Two Sessions, said the strategy is really a “hegemonic” system aimed at encircling China. Subsequently, China has grown more alert, and has enhanced its national strength and diplomatic response by promoting the modernization of its national security capabilities, accelerating military modernization and strengthening diplomatic planning at the global and regional levels.

In this context, the U.S. government has also become more aware of the urgency of strengthening strategic communication with China to reduce miscalculations. President Biden has repeatedly stated that the U.S. does not seek to change China’s institutions, does not seek to strengthen alliances against China, does not support Taiwan independence and does not seek a new cold war. It has no intention of clashing with China, he has said. While the U.S. government tends to be divided on specific policies, this shows that the U.S. takes China’s perceptions of the Indo-Pacific Strategy seriously and now puts greater emphasis on pacing its efforts.

The third constraint for the U.S. is that countries in the region are reluctant to take sides. Their attitude toward the Indo-Pacific Strategy is complex, and one of the important reasons is that they are worried about being forced to take side in the event of a showdown. In September, in a speech to the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, President Biden said that in addressing evolving geopolitical trends, the U.S. does not ask any country to choose between the United States or any other partner.

In this vein, the level of acceptance — as well as the outcome and prospects for the Indo-Pacific Strategy — hinge on whether the U.S. strategy and policy in the region are able to accommodate the concerns of countries the region, especially their reluctance to take sides. In turn, this will have a bearing on the effectiveness and prospects of its implementation.

Similarly, the degree to which China’s foreign policy is perceived as right for the region will have a direct bearing on China’s acceptance and influence. This has implications for the advancement of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Susan Shirk, president of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said that China’s diplomatic behavior will have an impact on the formation of international counter-coalitions. Zbigniew Brzezinski had also asserted that China’s nationalism and arrogance in flaunting its rising power could inadvertently lead to a powerful regional alliance against it. Thus, the effectiveness and prospects of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy are closely linked to China’s diplomatic skill, especially its ability to influence and shape its own neighborhood.

Because of the dual nature of the U.S. strategy of containment and management, three factors appear to have combined as a major constraint: China’s perceptions, its ability to respond and the concerns of others about taking sides in the event of a showdown. If the U.S. government fails to respond effectively to the fallout from such a constraint, the Indo-Pacific Strategy will falter and China-U.S. relations will veer off course. Either way, it will be a failure for the United States.

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