China’s Indo-Pacific Folly

Beijing’s Belligerence Is Revitalizing U.S. Alliances

In December 2022, Japan released its first national security strategy in nearly ten years. The document committed Tokyo to strengthening the U.S.-Japanese alliance “in all areas.” And Japan is not alone. Over the last half decade, almost all U.S. allies across the Indo-Pacific have deepened their partnerships with Washington and formed new networks with one another.

At first blush, this might seem puzzling. Chinese President Xi Jinping has voiced his desire for the United States to withdraw from the Indo-Pacific, and his government has upheld China’s long tradition of expressing hostility toward Washington’s alliances, which form the foundation of the U.S. presence in the region. Many analysts, including Rush Doshi and Elizabeth Economy, have argued that Beijing has a disciplined and coherent strategy to drive a wedge between the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies. But far from a well-executed campaign, Beijing’s effort to erode U.S. alliances has been incoherent and undisciplined, strengthening, rather than weakening, U.S. alliances in the region and producing an energized U.S.-led coalition poised to constrain Beijing for years to come.

Beijing’s ambition to isolate Washington from its Asian allies has been derailed in large part by its desire to redress more immediate grievances—namely, to reclaim what it sees as lost territory and punish countries that offend its sensibilities. Instead of staying focused on its long-term strategic objectives, China has grown preoccupied with achieving near-term tactical gains in both its territorial disputes with its neighbors and its quest for deference from other countries. These impulses have resulted in major strategic errors and suggest that Beijing is not nearly as adept at planning and executing long-term strategy as many believe.

Nowhere has China’s pursuit of territorial advantage more clearly undermined its efforts to weaken U.S. alliances than in the South China Sea. In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president of the Philippines gave Beijing a prime opportunity to pick off a long-standing U.S. ally. After months of expressing hostility toward the United States and admiration for China, Duterte declared a “separation” from Washington and an intention to “realign” the country. China moved to capitalize, reducing trade barriers with the Philippines and pledging large amounts of investment in the country. Beijing also initially sought to reduce friction over disputed territories in the South China Sea, the most combustible issue in its relationship with the Philippines. And in early 2020, China seemed on the verge of a major diplomatic win when Duterte announced his intention to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which facilitates the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines.

But in the lead-up to the agreement’s official termination, China proved unwilling to restrain itself in the South China Sea. Among other provocations, Beijing publicly reasserted its authority to administer the contested areas, and one of its naval vessels threatened a Philippine ship. Such conduct irked Duterte and generated discord at precisely the moment that China should have sought to smooth over these disputes. And Beijing paid a price for its actions. In June 2020, Manila initiated the first of three suspensions of the process for terminating the U.S. agreement, and the following year, Duterte fully restored it. Beijing gained nothing of significance in the South China Sea through its provocations, but it squandered a golden opportunity to dismantle a central element of the U.S.-Philippine alliance.

The same counterproductive tendency to prioritize territorial interests over strategic objectives can be seen in China’s relationship with Japan. Over the last decade, China has established a near-permanent paramilitary presence around the disputed Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands), a collection of uninhabited rocks and islets with nationalistic significance but almost no strategic value. In so doing, Beijing has fed Japan’s suspicions of China and pushed Tokyo closer and closer to Washington. In 2014, Japan reinterpreted its pacifist constitution to expand the conditions under which it could militarily aid the United States in an armed conflict. A year later, Tokyo and Washington adopted new defense guidelines to facilitate closer military coordination. Tokyo now describes the U.S.-Japanese alliance as “stronger than ever,” and Japan’s transformational 2022 National Security Strategy calls for, among other measures, increasing the defense budget, acquiring counterstrike capabilities, and further deepening its alliance with Washington and its security partnerships with U.S. allies.

China’s pursuit of territorial advantage has also helped produce a new type of proto-alliance by pushing nonaligned India into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a loose coalition that also includes Australia, Japan, and the United States. Beijing’s persistent assertiveness along its disputed border with India led to a major standoff in Doklam in 2017, a deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in 2020, and additional confrontations in 2021 and 2022. Such conduct has prompted New Delhi to shed its former ambivalence about the Quad, agreeing to elevate it to the summit level and deepen defense ties with its members.

Another hallmark of Chinese statecraft that has undermined its efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and its Asian allies is its desire to punish states that fail to accommodate Beijing’s preferences. This tendency was most evident in the combative “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy China pursued early in the pandemic, but it predates COVID-19. China’s recent history with South Korea is illustrative. Beginning in 2013, Beijing made a concerted and initially successful effort to cultivate newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye. It did so by adopting a cooperative diplomatic posture toward Seoul and working to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. When Park appeared in 2015 on a dais in Tiananmen Square flanked by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to observe a Chinese military parade, some in Washington began to fret that Seoul was leaning too far toward Beijing.

Xi’s charm offensive also helped divide the United States and South Korea over the proposed deployment of a THAAD antimissile system in the South, a deployment supported by Washington and opposed by Beijing as a supposed threat to its nuclear security. For a year and a half after the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea broached the idea in 2014, Park declined to hold formal talks with Washington for fear of upending her newly improved relationship with China and losing its support in dealing with the North.

But true to form, Beijing promptly squandered its influence with Seoul following a North Korean nuclear test in January 2016. The test compelled Park to begin discussions with Washington on deploying the THAAD system, prompting Beijing to begin threatening Seoul and to eventually initiate a sweeping campaign of economic punishment. Although U.S. officials sought to assuage China’s concerns about nuclear security by offering to brief their Chinese counterparts on the system’s technical details, Beijing rejected the offer and continued to penalize Seoul. Not only did this behavior fail to halt the system’s deployment but it dramatically soured the South Korean public’s perception of China: according to one 2021 public opinion survey, South Koreans view China even less favorably than they view Japan, their former imperial master and traditional regional foe. During South Korea’s 2022 presidential election, both major candidates embraced the public’s anti-Chinese sentiment, and Yoon Suk-yeol won on the more pro-American platform. Since taking office, Yoon has moved to deepen missile defense cooperation with the United States and Japan, a development China has long sought to avoid.

China doesn’t pose nearly the threat to U.S. alliances that many in Washington fear.
China’s punitive statecraft has generated even more blowback in Australia. Ten years ago, Canberra was at pains to strike a balance between China, its largest trading partner and an important source of investment, and the United States, its principal security partner. Australia’s economic relationship with China even caused some friction between Washington and Canberra when a Chinese company signed a 99-year lease to operate an Australian port just miles from where U.S. Marines have a rotational presence.

But China’s relationship with Australia began to unravel after journalists broke a series of stories revealing the disturbing extent of Chinese interference in Australian society and politics. One of the most brazen episodes involved a senior Chinese official threatening Australian politicians to accommodate Beijing by supporting an extradition treaty with China. When Canberra passed anti-interference legislation in 2018, Chinese punishments followed. Beijing forbade Chinese firms from buying Australian minerals and held up Australian wine at Chinese ports. As relations with China deteriorated, Canberra moved to strengthen ties with Washington, deepening defense cooperation and working to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific Island countries. Australia also reengaged with the Quad—a notable change, since Canberra had backed away from the grouping in 2007, largely out of concern for China.

In 2021, after Australia advocated for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Beijing responded with an even more aggressive campaign of political and economic punishment. Chinese belligerence drove the two countries’ relationship to its lowest ebb in decades, spurred Canberra to find ways of limiting China’s involvement in the Australian economy, and facilitated a historic deepening in the U.S.-Australian alliance with the formation of the AUKUS partnership. AUKUS will enable the United States and the United Kingdom to share with Australia some of their most sensitive military technologies and will eventually provide Canberra with nuclear submarines. When announcing the partnership in September 2021, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison described AUKUS as a “forever partnership” and “the single greatest” national security initiative since the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty.

Although Beijing may finally be waking up to the enormous damage its diplomacy has done, no one should expect more disciplined statecraft during Xi’s third five-year term. The consequences of Beijing’s grievance-driven behavior on the strength of U.S. alliances have been clear for some time now. If Xi and his comrades were eager to facilitate different outcomes, they would have changed tack long ago. That they didn’t suggests Beijing was genuinely more interested in reclaiming lost lands and thirsting for deference than it was in undermining U.S. alliances.

Perhaps Chinese diplomats will walk back the most abrasive elements of their Wolf Warrior diplomacy, but Beijing is unlikely to subordinate its territorial objectives or quest for dominance to a disciplined strategy for splitting the United States from its Indo-Pacific allies. Just this month, after Japan and South Korea established new pandemic-related travel restrictions for Chinese tourists, Beijing stopped issuing short-term visas to Japanese and South Korean citizens—a retaliation that was widely rebuked in Tokyo and Seoul. China’s apparent need to punish those that cross it is unlikely to disappear, even if this tendency undermines Beijing’s long-term strategic aspirations.

All of this is good news for the United States. Beijing’s diplomatic record suggests that China doesn’t pose nearly the threat to U.S. alliances that many in Washington fear. Instead of pursuing a farsighted strategy to undermine American alliances, it has prioritized other objectives—even when they have backfired. Chinese statecraft is likely to continue to provide opportunities for Washington to deepen its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, solidifying the United States’ presence there over Beijing’s objections.

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