US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Air Force Station Palam in Delhi, India, on June 25. The Trump administration’s vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems to exclude China. Photo: Bloomberg
by Zhou Bo
by Zhou Bo

A US Indo-Pacific strategy that isolates China is small-minded and dangerous

  • While it’s clear the US’ Indo-Pacific report targets China, few countries can afford to openly support the strategy and risk harming economic relations with Beijing
  • China’s rise in the next 30 years should help America realise it is not so exceptional and indispensable but, rather, an equal member of the international community
Ever since US President Donald Trump spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam in 2017, the question has been: what is this, a vision, an initiative or a strategy? With the release of Pentagon’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” on June 1, the dust has finally settled.

In the introduction to the paper, then acting defence secretary Patrick M. Shanahan frames “geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions” as the US’ main security concern and singles out China as a country which “seeks to reorder the region to its advantage”.

One doesn’t need to read the full text to know this strategy has China at its core. In what proved a litmus test, a Chinese scholar attending the Raisina Dialogue, a geopolitical conference in New Delhi, in January 2018, asked Indian panellists: if the Indo-Pacific is indeed free and open, could “the Quad” – the United States, India, Japan and Australia – accept China as a member? The response from the audience was a burst of laughter.
Here lies the dilemma of the Indo-Pacific strategy: if the geopolitical strategy is aimed at China, few countries would support it overtly; if it isn’t, why bother to develop such a strategy at all? As relations between China and the US deteriorate, all countries vowing not to take sides are actually taking sides in a smart way, that is, on issues rather than choosing partners.
For example, Asean countries are widely believed to rely on China economically and on the US militarily. Even the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that want to see a US military presence in the region have joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and are open to using Huawei’s 5G technology.

The Quad might look like an anti-China club, but this is precisely the perception the US’ supposedly “like-minded” allies, India, Japan and Australia, are resisting. None of them – not even the US – wishes to jeopardise its bilateral ties with China for the gains of the other three.

Trump’s indiscriminate stress on fairness and reciprocity in trade with allies, and actions like ending the US’ preferential trade treatment for India, will only succeed in making New Delhi feel more like-minded with Beijing, at least for a while.

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In the South China Sea, although US allies such as Britain, France, Australia and Japan have sailed warships in the name of freedom of navigation, they are careful not to join the US Navy in sailing through the waters within 12 nautical miles of China’s rocks and islands.
Today’s global China can hardly be straitjacketed in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The Trump administration’s whole-of-government efforts to disrupt international rules for “America first” have made the US look more revisionist than any other country. According to a Gallup report in February, the median global approval rating of China’s leadership across more than 130 countries and areas was 34 per cent, higher than the US’ 31 per cent.
If one compares China’s Belt and Road Initiative with America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it is interesting to note China is modest enough to describe its far-reaching infrastructure programme as an “initiative”, while the US calls its much smaller vision for the Indo-Pacific a “strategy”. The Belt and Road Initiative is open to all, but it is hard to imagine an Indo-Pacific strategy that accepts China.

When Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf writes of a “looming 100-year US-China conflict”, perhaps he is thinking of the Hundred Years’ War fought from 1337 to 1453 between England and France over succession to the French throne. He rightly characterises the China-US relationship as “manageable, albeit vexed”, though it is rhetorical to suggest competition between the two powers will become “perpetual conflict”.

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And the competition won’t necessarily last 100 years; a more likely time frame is 30 years, for two turning points can be expected in the first half of the 21st century. The first is around 2030- 2035 when China, as widely anticipated, overtakes the US in terms of GDP. The second is around the mid-century, when the People’s Republic of China announces on the centennial of its founding that it has achieved its most cherished objective, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Each turning point should add to America’s humility and help it realise it is not as exceptional and indispensable as it believes and has tried to make others believe. The US is but an equal member of the international community, like the rest of us.

This suggests the upcoming 10-15 years will be the most difficult time. Although the Trump administration said in its National Security Strategy report in 2017 that competition “does not always mean hostility”, it actually mostly does. Competition is never healthy, the only question is how to make it less ugly.
Currently, competition between the two countries ranges from trade to hi-tech. Although neither side wants a military conflict, America’s much enhanced “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea have increased the risk of miscalculation.

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It is not clear if the adoption of the Indo-Pacific strategy signals the start of US retrenchment, at least militarily. If this is the case, the consequences will be felt around the world and people’s perception of the US’ inevitable decline will only deepen. Since the Obama administration, the US’ strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific has made even the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the world’s largest military alliance, feel neglected.

But if the most significant change in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy so far is the renaming of the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command, it sure looks like old wine in an old bottle with a new label.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science in China

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China’s rise will show the US it is far from indispensable