Illustration: Craig Stephens
Zhao Xiaozhuo
Zhao Xiaozhuo

US confrontation or Chinese cooperation? As the Asia-Pacific contemplates its future security, the choice is obvious

  • As the defence chiefs of the US and China head to Singapore to promote their security strategies for the Indo-Pacific, countries in the region face a choice
  • Given their desire for development and cooperation, the US’ focus on exclusivity and rivalry offers little compared to China’s vision of mutual understanding
Complex changes are taking place in the sphere of international security. Civil unrest in Africa and regional hotspot issues in the Middle East are emerging one after another, while the Russia-Ukraine war puts Europe in the eye of the storm, even if a mere few months ago, many thought war was far away from Europe.

In comparison, the Asia-Pacific – despite some uncertainties – has maintained overall peace and stability, with development and cooperation remaining the primary focus.

However, in the context of accelerating tensions among major powers and lack of strategic mutual trust, many are worried how long this peace and stability, and the upbeat momentum conducive to development, can last.

The Shangri-La Dialogue will be held in Singapore this weekend, returning after three years, and the issue of how to maintain peace and security in the Asia-Pacific will be back in the spotlight. Both the Chinese defence minister and US defence secretary will attend the meeting, which is bound to attract high-level attention.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to deliver a major speech on US defence policy in the Indo-Pacific, while Chinese State Councillor and Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe will speak on China’s vision for regional order in the Asia-Pacific.

We have recently seen many developments on the Indo-Pacific strategy from the Biden administration. On February 12, the White House issued its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy. Further announcements – the “US-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement”, “US-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement” and “Quad Joint Leaders’ statement” – were made during President Joe Biden’s visit to Northeast Asia from May 21 to 24.

On May 26, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a speech at George Washington University, outlining the administration’s approach to China. It’s highly likely that Secretary Austin will comprehensively expound the military part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy in Singapore.

Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a meeting with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Pentagon in Washington on June 2. In Singapore this weekend, Austin is expected to deliver a major speech on US defence policy in the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AP

Though still in the process of formation, the strategy already has a clear structure. With the premise of China being the US’ strategic competitor, it is made up of three pillars.

The first is to strengthen alliances. On the foundation of its bilateral military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, the US is now focused on the Quad and Aukus. It is even attempting to expand Nato to the Asia-Pacific.
The second is to promote the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Hatched by the US, with 12 other founding member states, the IPEF disregards the region’s two existing frameworks, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership ( RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership ( CPTPP).
The third pillar is to intensify military action on all fronts. The US is flexing its muscles and stoking security hotspot issues in the region through its “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, high-profile transits through the Taiwan Strait and joint military exercises in west Pacific Ocean.


Joe Biden arrives in South Korea for a tour of Asia to strengthen US ties in the Indo-Pacific

Joe Biden arrives in South Korea for a tour of Asia to strengthen US ties in the Indo-Pacific

This combination may help defend the hegemonic interests of the US to a certain degree, but in no way can it maintain regional peace and security beneficial to all countries in the region.


Military alliances are exclusive in nature, meaning that the security guarantees member states provide each other must target a third party. While safeguarding the security benefits of a small bloc, military alliances create unnecessary rivalry and risk stoking division, confrontation or even conflict.

Just what is the purpose of the Quad’s Indo-Pacific maritime initiative?

Meanwhile, the IPEF is in essence a form of protectionism. It encourages inner circulation within a small bloc, jeopardising existing regional cooperative framework, impeding free trade and reversing the trend of regional integration.


Fanning the flame of security hotspot issues can be viewed as openly creating conflict, aggravating regional tensions and clouding the region’s development with heavy security burdens.

The US Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) crosses the South China Sea, as part of a scheduled deployment to the region, on April 9, 2021 Photo: US Navy handout

After all, behind the US Indo-Pacific strategy is a cold war mentality which applies obsolete perceptions to today’s prosperous Asia-Pacific. Yet the two world wars and Cold War of the 20th century are proof that confrontation and conflict can only lead to disaster, and a bright future is always driven by win-win cooperation.


Distinctly different from the outdated mentality of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, China has put forward a series of proposals full of Chinese wisdom, with the future of all humanity and current development trends in mind.

For example, China has proposed to build a “community with a shared future for mankind”, an initiative that encourages states to respond to the call of the time, treat each other as equals and engage in consultation and mutual understanding, instead of resorting to exclusive alliances and confrontation. It lays a path for building an inclusive and constructive partnership that does not create any imaginary enemy nor target any third party.

US must accept Southeast Asia wants China to play central Indo-Pacific role

The Belt and Road Initiative, focusing on greater connectivity, is similarly guided by the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. As of April, over 200 belt and road cooperation documents have been signed between China and 149 countries and 32 international organisations.

The Global Security Initiative that China advocates outlines six commitments: to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; to abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; to taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; to peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and to maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.

These new ideas represent China’s meaningful efforts to explore an approach to promote the progress of human civilisation. They are more relevant than ever in light of the deep and complex changes in international security.

Now the Asia-Pacific is standing at a crossroads. The choice between a zero-sum game and win-win cooperation can lead the region down completely different roads, towards very different prospects. Whether to safeguard regional security benefiting all and maintain the momentum of development and prosperity, or to tread the beaten path of hot and cold wars by conniving confrontation, there is reason to believe that all regional countries can make the right choice.

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo is a senior fellow in the Academy of Military Sciences, PLA, China