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US vs China: Fighting for Allies in the Indo-Pacific Region

Image Courtesy of Unsplash.

Roar writer Violeta Fernandez Dieguez on the rivalry between the US and China in the Indo Pacific Region.

The Indo-Pacific is the region in between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. However, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what countries it consists of since different countries have different geographic views on its expansion. The US and Australia consider it to be the original Asia-Pacific region plus India. Meanwhile, Japan and India include Asia and Africa with both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This dispute is representative of the complications this body of water brings.

The Indo-Pacific is extremely relevant given that it’s composed of the most populated country (China), the biggest democracy (India) and seven of the ten largest armies. That is why, even if not physically in the region, the US government considers it the “most consequential region for America’s future.”

US-China rivalry

This brings us to the heart of the issue: the Indo-Pacific has turned into another US-China dispute. For both parties, this is a great opportunity for profit, since two-thirds of world trade passes through this region. With the Belt-and-Road initiative, China looks to bind the geopolitical space and lead the economic partnerships of the region. With the rise of China, the US has lost its presence, both in the region and worldwide. Some signs of this decline include the unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump claimed this was because free trade agreements promote inequality since cheaper goods would be imported from low-wage countries, thus taking away low-wage jobs for Americans.

Moreover, The Indo-Pacific is a key player in the US-China rivalry since it points out each of its strengths and weaknesses. While the US has a strong military and diplomatic presence, China can leverage its economic influence. The two countries must recruit allies in order to work more effectively.

This conflict can be seen in two dimensions: a peacetime competition for influence or a military conflict. While the conflict can just be seen as a fight to “win” in obtaining partner support, there is an unavoidable military dimension that threatens the peace in the region. This military dimension is increasing with the Biden administration. US military officials have called to maintain a “competitive edge” over China with, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, naming China a “pacing threat.” Simultaneously, President Xi Jinping said China must increase its military spending to prepare for the “Thucydides trap”. This represents the idea that conflict is inevitable when an emerging power threatens to displace a great one.

Who are the key players?

Not every Indo-Pacific country has the same stance regarding the US-China conflict. Competition is more intense where priorities overlap. These countries are Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. In these countries, China can use economic influence as leverage to weaken US military influence. Even though many countries have shared interests with the US, China has economic leverage to sway partners their way.

Australia also plays an important role in the region. It argued in favour of the US having a stronger engagement in the region, Australia’s economic ties with Bejing might undermine their concerns towards Chinese military presence. The Australian government stated that they are “concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities”. At the same time, their bilateral trade is estimated at over $100 billion in 2016 and Chinese investments in Australia rounded over $15 billion in the same year.

India has also become a key player,  favouring the US. For the past few years, however, New Delhi has struggled to find the balance between both global superpowers. India doesn’t want to be perceived as a “member of a containment strategy led by the West”. Still, China presents itself as a rising threat in the neighbourhood.

Japan’s stance is more clear.  Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo unveiled the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy in 2016. This approach aims to ensure “peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean”. In this way, Japan can achieve strategic autonomy while creating a favourable economic, diplomatic and military environment. This approach is limited since China’s maritime expansion intrudes Japan’s territorial waters, leading to land disputes. In response, Japan has set a strategy of strengthening its military and deepening its alliance with the US.

Biden’s stance

A change in foreign policy is due to arrive with the change in administration. Under Biden, US Indo-Pacific policy is expected to reach beyond a military approach. There will be a stronger focus on protecting democracy and human rights. By advancing policies gradually and forging meaningful partnerships, Biden will be able to ensure an enduring foundation in the region.

His outlook on the region is very similar to Obama’s, but times have changed. Attitudes towards China have become increasingly hostile, especially inside the US. To combat an increasingly powerful China, Biden’s strategy must adapt to the circumstances.

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