A shorter version of this article, titled “A Counterproductive Cold War With China: Washington’s 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific' Strategy Will Make Asia Less Open and Less Free,” was published in Foreign Affairs.

The author is indebted to Ryan DeVries and Alexis Dale-Huang for their assistance in the preparation of this essay, and to Stapleton Roy, Chas Freeman, Paul Heer, Peter Dutton, Ryan Haas, and Jeff Bader for their invaluable comments. The views expressed herein are the author’s alone, however.

In recent months, the Trump administration has been calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), 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 with Beijing. What Asia needs instead is a far more constructive regional approach grounded in a stable balance of power and in mutual compromise. 

An Unbalanced Sequel to the Rebalance

FOIP is not a new concept. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe originally unveiled it in August 2006, just before his first term as Japan’s leader. Abe conceived of the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions as a single strategic entity to be led by a coalition of like-minded, pro–free trade democracies centered on the so-called Quad of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Aiming to tighten security relations and enhance diplomatic and economic coordination, Abe viewed these Asian nations and other like-minded democracies as working to defend the rules-based international order, universal political values, and free access to the maritime global commons against a rising, undemocratic China. In time, all of these features would form the basis of the Trump administration’s FOIP concept.

Michael D. Swaine
Swaine was a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.
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At the time of its inauguration in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, while certainly endorsing the need to reassure other Asian nations confronting Beijing’s growing regional influence, nonetheless did not support Abe’s FOIP notion as the primary means of doing so, for many reasons discussed below. The Obama administration took a similar stance toward FOIP with its so-called Rebalance to Asia, first conceived in 2010–2011. 

On the one hand, the Rebalance shared some basic features with FOIP. It was certainly directed at Beijing and similarly assumed that China’s rise posed at least a potential threat to the security of Asian nations, open regional free trade, and the integrity and viability of core features of the international order in Asia. Hence, the Rebalance naturally sought to reassure Asian nations in the face of China’s growing clout.

On the other hand, and more importantly, the Rebalance in many respects upheld long-standing U.S. policy toward China and Asia in ways FOIP clearly does not. While aimed at enhancing U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Beijing, the Rebalance also aimed to unambiguously reassure China on critical regime legitimacy issues (such as the long-standing U.S. “one China” policy toward Taiwan). Moreover, it sought to strengthen positive-sum Sino-U.S. cooperation on common vital security issues, such as climate change, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism. The Obama administration always viewed reaching common ground with China on these and other major global challenges as essential to the success of its overall strategy.

In addition, unlike FOIP, the Rebalance attempted to bolster the long-term foundations of a free, open regional trade and investment system by supporting and expanding a new, inclusive multilateral framework of common, market-based standards: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Rather than designing this agreement to exclude Beijing as some incorrectly argued at the time, the Obama administration expected that TPP would eventually draw China and other Asian nations, both democratic and nondemocratic, into a more integrated, free-market system highly resistant to exclusionary, mercantilist economic policies.

The Core of FOIP: A Zero-Sum, Antagonistic Posture Toward China

Unfortunately, FOIP possesses none of the Rebalance’s positive features toward China. First and foremost, despite occasional brief nods toward cooperation with Beijing (for example, in dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea), FOIP proponents essentially view China as a hostile existential threat to regional (and global) order, prosperity, and Western interests. No longer is Beijing seen as both a competitor and potential partner to be selectively deterred and yet integrated into an evolving global and regional order. 

These negative views of China are evident in the Trump administration’s most authoritative descriptions of FOIP and overall U.S. strategy, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s October 2017 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pertinent sections of the December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), and relevant parts of the January 2018 unclassified summary of the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS). Comparing the latest NSS and NDS summary to earlier versions highlights the administration’s unprecedentedly confrontational, zero-sum view of China.

Like Abe, Tillerson presented FOIP as a single strategic region stretching between the two anchors of Japan (in the east) and India (in the west). While focusing many of his remarks on India, he nonetheless portrayed both nations as like-minded democratic, market-oriented partners, in contrast to an authoritarian, rule-breaking, adversarial China. For example, Tillerson depicted Beijing as “. . . at times undermining the international rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nation’s [sic] sovereignty.”

In economic terms, Tillerson painted China as a clear threat engaged in unqualified “predatory” lending and other destructive practices that undermine the freedom and sovereignty of developing nations. Moreover, in responding to such evils, he suggested that the United States, under FOIP, must offer “alternative financing mechanisms.” 

This cartoonish depiction ignores the significant scholarly literature and previous U.S government statements about how Chinese economic assistance actually benefits developing countries in some important ways, or about how Chinese-organized financial institutions—such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—might augment, rather than undermine, similar Western-oriented institutions. And, of course, Tillerson made no mention of the fact that the Trump administration has rejected the TPP while offering no alternative policy that could expect to have the same transformational regional effects.

Tillerson’s zero-sum characterization of Chinese practices is tame, however, compared with excerpts from the 2017 NSS and the 2018 NDS summary. For the first time since at least the early 2000s, these documents make no attempt to convey the more complex reality of a cooperative and competitive China, instead conflating Beijing with Moscow as a full-fledged adversarial “revisionist” state. The 2017 NSS baldly states:

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

This hostile, one-dimensional depiction of China’s policies and intentions toward the United States is woven throughout the NSS. For example, at various points, it states: 

“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. . .”

“China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. . .”

“China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

“China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.”

No other recent NSS has used such categorical, confrontational language to describe Beijing’s behavior around the globe and toward the United States. Instead, as one representative excerpt from 2015 stated:

“The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. . . . While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation. At the same time, we will manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms . . .”

Since the 2017 NSS depicts China’s behavior in such unqualifiedly negative and threatening terms, it naturally also describes future U.S policies toward China as solely aimed at countering Beijing, rather than as seeking cooperation where possible while competing and deterring in some areas, as earlier NSS documents have stated. The latest iteration of the NSS states: 

“We will work with our partners to contest China’s unfair trade and economic practices and restrict its acquisition of sensitive technologies.”

“We will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.”

“We will offer American goods and services, both because it is profitable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often-extractive economic footprint on the continent.”

In this way, the NSS presents FOIP as a vehicle for countering a “repressive vision of world order” associated in Asia primarily with China (and elsewhere with Russia) with an opposing “free” vision of world order involving democratic allies and partners, especially the Quad. Although the 2017 NSS claims “[o]ur vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation,” the document’s portrayal of China and the political, economic, and military/security “priority actions” FOIP would entail to combat it make clear that Beijing is certainly not viewed as a potential partner but as an unqualified adversary.

The 2018 NDS summary follows this same adversarial, zero-sum template toward China to an even more extreme degree. To justify a highly ambitious set of steps to strengthen U.S. military and political capabilities, (such as modernizing the nuclear triad, developing military capabilities relevant to space and cyberspace, and defeating aggression by a major power), the document again lumps in China with Russia as a revisionist power dedicated to destroying the existing global order and undermining the West. In breathtaking fashion, it states that Beijing seeks to dominate the globe:

“It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions. . . . China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. The most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy [the NDS] is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”

It is impossible to see how depicting Beijing as an implacable adversary determined to coerce and dominate the globe militarily and economically can help create a transparent, non-aggressive military relationship between the United States and China. One must ask why China would be transparent and peaceful in response to such a starkly aggressive stance?

The previous 2008 NDS had none of this unqualifiedly hostile language toward Beijing. It explicitly stated that the United States “. . . encourages China to participate as a responsible stakeholder by taking on a greater share of burden for the stability, resilience, and growth of the international system . . .” while continuing to “. . . hedge against other possibilities.” As suggested above, all NSS documents up to 2015 reflected this general approach to China. 

It is highly implausible that, in two scant years, Beijing has reversed course to become an unambiguous opponent of the international system and an intractable foe of the United States and its allies. This sudden shift in the U.S. strategic posture toward China more likely has resulted instead from the inauguration of a new U.S. administration intent on defining its policies primarily in opposition to those of its predecessors. 

Equally contradictory, like the NSS, the NDS summary inexplicably depicts FOIP as both an all-inclusive vision for regional prosperity and security, and as a networked security architecture of allies and partners directed at China. It states: 

A free and open Indo-Pacific region provides prosperity and security for all. We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.

Again, how can such a structure both include and simultaneously target as its primary adversary one of the largest, most economically dynamic nations in the Asia-Pacific?

Unlike past U.S. strategy statements, these Trump administration documents neglect to portray China as a potential contributor to regional or global stability and prosperity, or as a possible collaborator on common global and regional security problems. The benefits Washington and its allies have accrued by cooperating with Beijing over the past several decades are completely unacknowledged. And rather than recognizing the need to adapt some global norms to better reflect the views and interests of China and other developing states, these U.S. strategy statements and the FOIP concept seek to pit the United States and other democracies against China in a zero-sum competition by accusing Beijing of deliberately striving to overturn the entire global order. This preposterous notion is belied by the historical record and the analysis of numerous scholars.

A Problematic Reliance on Other Asian Democracies

Beyond its logical pitfalls and unwarranted departure from past 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. The strategy’s reliance on a bloc of supposedly like-minded Asian states is intended to augment America’s diminishing regional capabilities (relative to China’s) and uphold common political and economic norms. But India and Japan are poorly suited to serve as the anchors of an Indo-Pacific strategic domain antagonistic to Beijing, and other Asian states would likely resist taking sides in a polarizing Manichean contest between China and the United States. 

India is far from the example Tillerson depicted of a committed partner moving in lockstep with Washington on critical aspects of the regional order. New Delhi has long resisted being drawn into strategic alliances against third parties. Despite recent signals of support for FOIP, India prides itself on maintaining an independent foreign policy. While concerned about China’s rise, serious Indian foreign policy specialists recognize the need to maintain substantive cooperation with Beijing as leverage for dealing with the West and promoting India’s own development. Equally important, Indian policymakers bristle at the U.S. definition of FOIP as extending westward only to India. For them, India’s current strategic vista extends from the Malacca Strait to the Middle East. Some Indian strategists have pointed out that the U.S.-articulated scope of FOIP corresponds instead to the purview of the U.S. Pacific Command, betraying a decidedly U.S.-centric, non-Indian perspective. 

More importantly, New Delhi is not ready to serve as a major maritime power capable of counterbalancing China. India’s economy is significantly behind China’s by many measures, with a 2016 GDP estimated at roughly one-fifth that of China. Its defense spending is similarly far below China’s. Given such limitations, New Delhi will likely remain (for some time) understandably unenthusiastic about expanding its security horizon east of the Indian Ocean into the vast Pacific. Although India enjoys being part of a larger strategic vision, it is not disposed to substantively link its own strategic arena with the much larger Asia-Pacific or to engage in active military operations across such an expanse. 

Finally, India is not completely in sync with Washington in terms of championing free and open markets and advocating global norms juxtaposed to so-called Chinese misbehavior. Despite significant economic liberalization since the early 1990s, India still ranks below China on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. As for security norms, New Delhi’s views on how to address the presence of foreign militaries in a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are much closer to Beijing’s than Washington’s. Unlike the United States, China and India believe foreign militaries must ask permission before engaging in exercises and military surveys in their EEZs. Both require prior notice or consent before a foreign warship passes through their territorial seas, and both countries have enacted domestic legislation that conflicts with the American view of the navigational rights and freedoms guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In contrast to India, Japan is a dedicated U.S. ally with a strong economy and a potent regional navy. Moreover, since Prime Minister Abe originally coined FOIP (including the Quad concept at its center), he clearly endorses Trump’s acceptance of it. Abe is a key long-standing proponent of turning Japan into a normal power with a robust military able and willing to undertake combat missions far from the home islands. 

Yet while all this suggests Japan is willing to support the extension and implementation of the FOIP strategy in tandem with Washington, significant limitations constrain how far Tokyo would actually go to join the kind of anti-China strategic alliance the NSS and NDS summary envision. First, Japan is highly dependent on its growing economic ties with China. Some experts argue that past Sino-Japanese economic interdependence has evolved into a degree of Japanese dependence that now gives China the preponderance of economic leverage. Equally important, despite a growing sense of threat from China, the Japanese public remains strongly opposed to revising the Japanese constitution to allow Tokyo to create a full-blown conventional military force capable of operating alongside the United States to secure the Indo-Pacific. Neither of these factors indicates that Tokyo would adamantly resist a more hardline approach to China. But these realities do suggest Japan would likely hedge to avoid transitioning toward an overtly hostile, Cold War–type stance vis-à-vis Beijing. 

Similarly, other U.S. Asian allies—including Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand—are unlikely to fully sign onto an unqualifiedly adversarial stance toward Beijing. 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 for the foreseeable future. South Korea and Thailand are probably least likely to help implement FOIP by (inter alia) adopting zero-sum, competitive economic regimes or integrating themselves into a U.S.-centered multilateral security architecture directed primarily at Beijing. Neither country views China as an implacable threat, and both benefit significantly from continued cooperation with China in many areas. Given their proximity to Beijing, Seoul and Bangkok see the obvious dangers of endorsing a hostile stance toward China. This is particularly true for Seoul, given both its distrust of Japan and its need to elicit Chinese assistance in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Although further away geographically, Australia and the Philippines are also either highly dependent on China economically (Australia) or greatly in need of Chinese economic assistance (the Philippines). While Canberra is arguably a more committed U.S. ally than Manila (whose support for the alliance has experienced ups and downs), the former is also concerned about being dragged into a confrontation with China. 

Finally, FOIP is problematic because most of the remaining Asian states—including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam—would not endorse a strategic concept that could easily polarize the region and force them to choose sides. While possibly supporting some of FOIP’s features and goals rhetorically, these countries would almost certainly either refuse outright to participate in any anti-Chinese measures (Cambodia and Laos) or hedge greatly against such actions to maintain beneficial ties with China (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam). 

A Clear Departure From Past U.S. Policy

The FOIP concept, if implemented, would overturn nearly four decades of U.S. policy toward China and the Asia-Pacific in ways that severely misread the region’s geopolitical terrain. FOIP aims to replace the vastly more accurate vision of a mutually beneficial and increasingly interdependent region that requires increasing levels of engagement and hedging on all sides with the notion of a divided region that seeks to build support for Washington by rallying other Asian nations against Beijing. While the former long-standing policy approach focuses on commonalities, inclusivity, and bounded competition in a clear-eyed, non-zero-sum manner, the latter stresses divisions and mutually exclusive, contending visions in a one-dimensional, winner-take-all fashion.

Fundamentally, FOIP risks profoundly undermining the foundations of the very open, democratic regional order it seeks to uphold. In this respect, it reflects the Trump administration’s overall destructive tendency to view the world not as a global community but merely as a transactional arena where nations compete for egocentric advantage. FOIP’s basic tenets and reductive depiction of Chinese objectives and policies forestall virtually any productive interactions with China, except on Trump’s iconoclastic terms. Such a strategy would dash any hopes of actually strengthening order, cooperation, and growth in the Asia-Pacific or farther afield.

Undoubtedly, China’s undemocratic governing structures, affinity for greater state economic control, and heightened sensitivity to perceived infringements on its sovereignty all signify real disagreements with Washington and some U.S. allies. Indeed, these substantial differences drive competing Chinese and U.S. efforts to define and apply many global and regional norms. Nonetheless, they do not nearly justify the absolutist Sino-U.S. contest FOIP espouses. 

While certainly exhibiting some significant revisionist tendencies, China is simultaneously committed to many elements of the established order and contributes enormously to overall global and regional economic 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 is striving to create new regional and global financial, trade, and investment structures that could benefit many states (such as the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative), while also leading efforts to develop renewable energy technologies. 

Equally important, contrary to unsubstantiated claims by some U.S. scholars and officials, China actually holds a highly unresolved, contingent sense of its long-term relationship with the United States and its partners. No substantive evidence indicates 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 status-quo state for an antagonistic country bent on pursuing an outlandish existential struggle between two radically opposed visions of the future. 

China’s differences with the West pale before the overwhelming need for the world’s two most powerful nations to cooperate on global problems like WMD proliferation, pandemics, climate change, and global financial instability. 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 that FOIP cannot impart. 

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 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. Defining Sino-U.S. interactions primarily as a contest over conflicting political systems will only undermine these aims.

Unfortunately, neither Washington nor Beijing is moving forward in any of these areas, and this portends serious future problems for Asia. Under Xi Jinping, China 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 who seek to justify a confrontational, zero-sum approach to China, including proponents of FOIP. Hence, Beijing needs to moderate its behavior to more credibly convince other Asian states, and the United States in particular, that it is genuinely interested in 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 causing it to seek 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. 

Moreover, China is even more likely to adopt such a dangerous course of action given the worsening political disarray and mounting national debt plaguing the U.S. government. Such deficiencies could lead Chinese leaders to think that Washington would ultimately prove unable to marshal the resources and will necessary to prevail in a contest for regional dominance. In other words, under current conditions, FOIP represents the worst of both worlds: a threatening approach to Beijing that lacks what it would need to succeed, however questionable its aims might be.

Despite its serious domestic political and economic problems, the United States is still the region’s strongest and, arguably, most influential power; it, 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 and should refrain from treating Beijing as a foe. FOIP is a self-destructive concept that must be discarded in favor of more constructive alternatives.