A Counterproductive Cold War With China

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

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. Bobby Yip / Reuters

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.


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.

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