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Why Indo-Pacific Strategy Will Fail

Mar 04, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The Biden administration recently released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which refers to the growing challenges facing the region from China. It makes groundless accusations that China is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.

It is no coincidence that the Indo-Pacific Strategy was put forward during the Trump administration at virtually the same time the U.S. introduced its “great power competition” rhetoric. Compared with Washington’s previous policies in Asia the Indo-Pacific Strategy is more confrontational and has a goal of gradually shifting from extensive involvement in regional affairs to increasing competition with China and even curbing China’s development.

Although the Biden administration has not yet put forward a formal strategy document on China, and the National Security Strategy report has not been released for various reasons, some new adjustments and trends in America’s China strategy can be seen in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

First, the U.S. intends to compete against China by shaping China’s strategic environment. While the Indo-Pacific strategy highlights the so-called China challenge, it also stresses that the U.S. is not so much trying to change China as to shape the strategic environment. It seeks a new balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the U.S., to its allies and partners and to the interests and values they share, as well as to manage competition with China responsibly.

The talk of shaping the strategic environment echoes a perception of China expressed by several senior U.S. officials, including Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser. This represents a significant shift in the U.S. approach to the relationship between its particular stance toward China and its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The China strategy was initially an important part of a strategy whose framing meant that the U.S. and like-minded allies and partners should represent the whole region. It portrayed their relations with China as “us vs. them.”

Second, the Taiwan question will remain a tool for the U.S. government to hedge against China. On one hand, the Indo-Pacific Strategy states that the U.S. will work with partners inside and outside the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while stressing that its approach remains consistent with its “one-China” policy and its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. This statement has become standard rhetoric in the Biden administration regarding Taiwan.

But it also suggests that the Biden administration still wants to push the boundaries of its one-China policy in the belief that regional and international partners should be involved in Taiwan-related issues. The U.S. is thus using the Taiwan question in a broader approach to regional stability, hollowing out the one-China policy and internationalizing the Taiwan question.

Third, the Biden administration will take a more comprehensive approach to impede China’s development. At the security level, the U.S. will promote the building of a latticework of coalitions to strengthen the connectivity of allies both inside and outside the region, including the Quad and AUKUS. On the economic front, the U.S. administration is about to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which might be combined with the Building Back Better World effort to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims at China, will encounter many limitations. None of America’s regional allies — considering their own peace and development in the region — will be willing to become the anti-China vanguard for the United States. It is therefore an impossible mission for the U.S. to rely on those allies to shape the strategic environment in its favor.

Under such circumstances, the U.S. must portray China as a regional security threat in hope of mobilizing countries in the region to collaborate. But China’s development has long been an important engine driving the region’s prosperity. In particular, the Belt and Road Initiative has taken root, while America’s economic initiatives tend to pay lip service but deliver few concrete results.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration faces a domestic predicament that raises doubts about the U.S. ability to honor its commitments to the region. At present, the U.S. is still suffering from the pandemic at home, as well as high inflation and supply chain crises, all of which have limited the resources available to invest abroad. If the U.S. hopes to turn regional countries against China by “leading from behind,” it is engaging in wishful thinking.

To sum up, by strengthening its strategic deployment in the region and seeking as many allies as possible, the U.S. hopes to encircle China and disrupt its rise. In its narrative of strategic competition with China, the U.S. has been playing up tensions, stirring up the security situation and casting a Cold War shadow over the region.

The Biden administration’s policy suggests that rolling back China’s regional influence over U.S. allies and partners is a core goal of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Yet, there is a serious conflict between the U.S. strategy to hamper China and its regional strategy to gain benefits. This will only lead to a lose-lose outcome.

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