Bobby Yip / Reuters Members of the Hong Kong government swear an oath of office in front of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2017.

A Counterproductive Cold War With China

Washington's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" Strategy Will Make Asia Less Open and Less Free

In recent months, the Trump administration has been calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a vision for Asia built around the concept of a strong coalition of like-minded regional democracies. Extending from Japan in the east to India in the west, FOIP would aim to defend against the ways a rising China ostensibly threatens the rules-based international order, universal liberal values, and free access to the maritime global commons. In reality, however, FOIP is likely to have the opposite effect, provoking Beijing, alarming other Asian nations, and driving the region toward a highly tense, zero-sum competition. By adopting an ideological and confrontational posture toward China, the Trump administration risks creating a pointless Cold War. What Asia needs is a far more constructive regional approach grounded in a stable balance of power and in mutual compromise.

AN UNBALANCED SEQUEL TO THE REBALANCE

Like the Obama era’s rebalance to Asia, FOIP aims to reassure regional allies wary of China’s rise by responding vigorously to the risks that its dominance might pose: to the security of Asian nations, to open regional free trade, and to international norms such as peaceful dispute resolution. But unlike the rebalance, FOIP does not seek to reassure China on critical regime issues (such as the long-standing U.S. “one China” policy toward Taiwan) or strengthen positive-sum Sino-U.S. cooperation on transnational threats such as climate change. And it offers no comparable alternative to the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potentially transformative regional trade deal that U.S. President Donald Trump jettisoned on his third day in office. 

Instead, FOIP portrays China as a hostile existential threat to regional order, prosperity, and Western interests. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson introduced this characterization in an October 2017 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Trump administration then elaborated on this portrayal of China in its December 2017 National Security Strategy and in relevant parts of the January 2018 unclassified summary of the National Defense Strategy. These documents repeatedly conflate Beijing with Moscow, painting it as another full-fledged adversarial “revisionist” state. The 2017 NSS baldly states that “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” and it further claims that “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” Elsewhere, the document accuses China of “seek[ing] to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region” and of “expand[ing] its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.” The 2018 NDS summary similarly posits that Beijing “seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

Consequently, the 2017 NSS frames U.S. policies toward China solely around countering Beijing, with no consideration for selective cooperation coupled with selective competition and deterrence. Given these documents’ unqualified depictions of a hostile China, the 2017 NSS and 2018 NDS summaries unsurprisingly present FOIP as a vehicle for countering a “repressive vision of world order” with an alternative “free” vision of world order. Like the Tillerson speech, the NSS and the NDS summaries nonsensically depict FOIP both as an all-inclusive vision intended to make all regional actors prosperous and secure and as a network of U.S. allies and partners aimed at countering China. The reality is that such security and prosperity hardly qualify as inclusive if Washington and its allies mean to treat one of the largest, most economically dynamic nations in the Asia-Pacific as an adversary. 

Rallying other Asian nations against Beijing in an oversimplified, winner-take-all fashion grossly misinterprets the challenges of an increasingly interdependent region, one that requires a varied approach of deepening engagement and of hedging by all sides.

Indeed, the Trump White House has dismissed China’s past, and potentially future, contributions to regional and global stability and prosperity. It has also ignored Beijing’s collaboration on common transnational problems and the general need to adapt some global norms to better reflect the views and interests of China and other developing states. Instead, these documents pit the United States and other democracies against China by accusing it of deliberately striving to overturn the entire global order, a preposterous notion belied by the historical record and scholarly consensus.

In marked contrast, previous NSS documents and NDS summaries described Washington’s relations with Beijing in measured, nuanced terms that acknowledged elements of both cooperation and competition. These documents “welcome[d] the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China” and “reject[ed] the inevitability of [U.S.-China] confrontation,” while “hedg[ing] against other possibilities.” It is highly implausible—in the two scant years preceding the latest NSS and NDS documents—that Beijing has become an unambiguous opponent of the international system, the United States, and its allies. This sudden shift in the U.S. strategic posture toward China is more likely the result of a new U.S. administration intent on defining its policies in opposition to those of its predecessors.

A PROBLEMATIC RELIANCE ON OTHER ASIAN DEMOCRACIES

Beyond its logical pitfalls and unwarranted departure from long-standing U.S. policy, FOIP’s misappraisal of India, Japan, and other key Asian allies’ interests and capabilities provokes serious doubts about whether the strategy is even workable. New Delhi and Tokyo are poorly suited to serve as the western and eastern anchors of an Indo-Pacific bloc or to operate in lockstep with a U.S.-led coalition antagonistic to Beijing.

India has long resisted being drawn into alliances against third parties and recognizes the need to maintain substantive cooperation with Beijing for its own strategic ends. Also, New Delhi’s naval ambitions are arguably hamstrung by an economy and military budget far smaller than China’s and by a long-standing dependence on foreign-made weapons systems. And despite significant economic liberalization since the early 1990s, India still ranks below China on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Moreover, New Delhi’s normative views on how to respond to foreign militaries within its exclusive economic zone are much closer to Beijing’s than Washington’s.

Even an economically robust, dedicated U.S. ally such as Japan, with a potent navy and a willing prime minister, could help implement FOIP only in circumscribed ways. Japan is likely to remain highly dependent on its growing economic ties with China. Equally important, Japanese citizens remain strongly opposed to the constitutional revisions Tokyo would need to create a full-blown conventional military capable of securing the Indo-Pacific alongside the U.S. Navy. Although open to a more hard-line approach to China, Japan would likely hedge to avoid an overtly hostile stance toward Beijing.

Other U.S. allies—including Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand—would have perhaps even greater reason to avoid endorsing an untempered adversarial stance toward China. Like Japan, these countries all depend, to varying degrees, on Chinese trade for continued growth and domestic stability—a role the United States cannot fulfill in the foreseeable future. Seoul and Bangkok are probably least likely to help implement FOIP. Neither country views China as an implacable threat, and both benefit significantly from continued cooperation with Beijing in many areas. Meanwhile, economic dependence on China would likely dissuade Australia and the Philippines from participating substantively in FOIP.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017.

AN ILL-ADVISED DEPARTURE FROM PAST U.S. POLICY

The FOIP concept, if implemented, would overturn decades of U.S. policy toward China and Asia in ways that severely misread the region’s geopolitical terrain. Its divisive vision of rallying other Asian nations against Beijing in an oversimplified, winner-take-all fashion grossly misinterprets the challenges of an increasingly interdependent region, one that requires a varied approach of deepening engagement and of hedging by all sides. Fundamentally, FOIP risks profoundly undermining the foundations of the very open, democratic regional order it seeks to uphold. 

Undoubtedly, China’s undemocratic governing structure, its affinity for greater state economic control, and its heightened sensitivity to perceived infringements on sovereignty all signify real disagreements with Washington and some U.S. allies. Indeed, these substantial differences drive competing efforts by Beijing and Washington to define and apply their own versions of global and regional norms. Nonetheless, this competition does not justify the zero-sum worldview that FOIP espouses. 

Although China certainly exhibits some revisionist tendencies, it is simultaneously committed to many elements of the established order and contributes enormously to overall global and regional growth. According to the World Bank, “China has been the largest contributor to world global growth since the global financial crisis of 2008.” Meanwhile, Beijing seeks to create new regional and global financial, trade, and investment structures such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative that may be of great benefit to a number of states. China is also leading efforts to develop renewable energy technologies to help mitigate climate change.

Equally important, and contrary to unsubstantiated claims by some U.S. scholars and officials, China holds a highly unresolved, contingent sense of its overall long-term relationship with the United States and its partners. No substantive evidence indicates that Beijing is committed to replacing Washington as the global hegemon. It would be highly ill-advised to mistake China’s complex self-identity, as both a revisionist and a status quo state, for an outlandish existential struggle between two world powers with radically opposing visions of the future.

China’s differences with the West pale before the overwhelming need for the world’s two leading powers to cooperate deeply on transnational problems such as climate change, global financial instability, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,. No individual states, or coalition of democracies, can single-handedly address these systemic issues. Rather, such challenges require a measure of mutual trust and long-term commitment among all major powers, which FOIP cannot impart.

FOIP risks profoundly undermining the foundations of the very open, democratic regional order it seeks to uphold.

A MORE REALISTIC BUT UNTRIED PATH FORWARD

Rather than competing as implacable adversaries, Washington and Beijing must address the challenges that come with Asia’s complex, rapidly changing environment and the broader evolving regional and global order. They must do so by defining and implementing a strategy that builds on the common interest of all regional states in long-term growth and stability. The chief goals would be to enhance economic integration, create a mutually beneficial balance of military power, and reach a set of understandings on hot-button issues such as Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula that are acceptable both to the United States and its allies and to China and its supporters. Such a strategy—presented in detail in an October 2016 Carnegie report entitled “Creating a Stable Asia: An Agenda for a U.S.-China Balance of Power”—would require all governments concerned to make considerable compromises, recognize that neither of the two great powers will dominate Asia, and curb chauvinistic, zero-sum nationalism.

Unfortunately, neither Washington nor Beijing is progressing in any of these areas, and this portends serious future problems for Asia. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has increased domestic repression, more assertively employed its economic and military power to pressure and intimidate Asian nations over sovereignty disputes, and explicitly (albeit somewhat vaguely) presented its economic development experience—and by implication its political system—as an example for other developing states to emulate. All these actions provide ammunition for those seeking to justify a confrontational, zero-sum approach to China, including proponents of FOIP. Hence, Beijing certainly needs to moderate its behavior to more credibly convince other Asian states, and the United States in particular, that it genuinely seeks the “win-win” outcomes it constantly espouses.

Yet Beijing is far less likely to compromise if Washington adopts an unqualifiedly adversarial stance. Given China’s size, influence, and overall strength, only the foolhardy would expect such a U.S. posture to chasten Beijing into compliance, rather than push it to use its considerable, and in some respects growing, economic, military, and political leverage in the hope of greatly reducing American influence in the region and beyond. In fact, a highly confrontational U.S. stance would almost guarantee that China itself adopts a zero-sum policy and eventually does seek to dominate the Indo-Pacific.

Despite its serious domestic political and economic problems, the United States is still the region’s strongest and, arguably, most influential power and, therefore, bears a unique responsibility and capacity to alter today’s ominous trends. Washington must abandon quixotic efforts to sustain a rapidly disappearing status quo by treating Beijing as a foe. FOIP is a self-destructive concept that must be discarded in favor of more constructive alternatives.

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