HomeExpansionismThe Indo-Pacific Divide: China's Coercion and Aggression Versus US Commitment

The Indo-Pacific Divide: China’s Coercion and Aggression Versus US Commitment

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The battle for the Pacific between the United States and China has been intensifying over the years, as the two nations compete for military dominance and political influence in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent developments, the United States has announced an agreement to deepen defense and security ties with the Philippines as part of its efforts to counter Chinese military expansionism and political influence in the region. However, this move may have more to do with growing wariness across the region about Beijing than a sudden desire for closer partnership with Washington.

Many people in smaller, traditionally non-aligned countries, worried about getting caught in the middle, would probably prefer their governments not to take sides at all. This rerun battle for the Pacific looks disturbingly like the warm-up for a second cold war. China’s often harshly enforced claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea has alienated neighbors, provoking numerous confrontations over freedom of navigation, disputed islands and energy resources.

Beijing’s unceasing intimidation of Taiwan, huge military buildup, unhelpful response to the pandemic, and backing for Russia’s war in Ukraine fit a broader pattern of off-putting arrogance and domineering behavior. President Xi Jinping insists that China simply wants a stable, prosperous multipolar world where countries follow their path, free from outside interference and western ideas about “universal” democratic and human rights. However, in practice, this boils down to a transparent bid by China to replace American global leadership with its own and upend the post-1945 international rules-based order.

The United States is an Indo-Pacific power, with the region home to more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries. The US has long recognized the Indo-Pacific as vital to its security and prosperity, with ties forged two centuries ago when Americans came to the region seeking commercial opportunities. The Second World War reminded the United States that the country could only be secure if Asia was too. And so in the post-war era, the United States solidified its ties with the region through ironclad treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Philippines, and Thailand, laying the foundation of security that allowed regional democracies to flourish.

These ties expanded as the United States supported the region’s premier organizations, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); developed close trade and investment relationships; and committed to uphold international law and norms, from human rights to freedom of navigation. At the end of the Cold War, the United States considered but rejected the idea of withdrawing its military presence, understanding that the region held strategic value that would only grow in the 21st century. Since then, administrations of both political parties have shared a commitment to the region.

Under President Biden, the United States is determined to strengthen its long-term position in and commitment to the Indo-Pacific. The US will focus on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands. This intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from China. 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.

China’s coercion and aggression span the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, US allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of China’s harmful behavior. In the process, China is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation.

Many smaller, traditionally non-aligned countries would prefer their governments not to take sides, as they worry about getting caught in the middle of a potential second Cold War. They may have no choice.

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