Softer tone on the Indo-Pacific
The Winter Olympics in China last month showcased the raw politics of a changing world order.
They also coincided with a new publication by the US administration on America’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which struck a very different tone to the one we had been hearing before.
Far from slamming Beijing, the careful wording diminishes its authoritarian onslaught and places China as one of several elements within the wider Indo-Pacific region. The binary ‘friend or foe’ mindset appears to have faded, giving opportunities to governments both in the West and the Indo-Pacific to find an alternative way forward.
February, therefore, has laid down a marker of where China now sits on the global stage and how the wider world should be responding.
The Winter Olympics underpinned the notion that long gone are the days when Beijing flinched over condemnation of its human rights or accepted criticism of its style of government. The crowning political symbol was the meeting of Xi Jinping with Vladimir Putin, who travelled to the games while simultaneously overseeing Russia’s offensive against Ukraine.
Since being awarded the Winter Olympics in 2015, Beijing has broken away more and more from the rules-based world order.
It has moved into Hong Kong, stepped up threats against Taiwan, initiated lethal cross-border conflict with India and built military bases in the international waters of the South China Sea. Additionally, evidence of government-sponsored brutality in its camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has led to China’s associations with genocide and the Nazi Holocaust.
Yet, despite all that, only a handful of nine governments, led by the United States, conducted a diplomatic boycott of the games because of human rights. None of the 91 countries taking part withdrew athletes.
There is now an inclement realism regarding China’s resolve, and the past 20 years of failed Western interventions around the world has dampened enthusiasm when it comes to responding to arguments over human rights and democracy.
Against that backdrop, the Biden administration appears to be offering a brave alternative.
February’s White Paper lays out five objectives: Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific; Build connections within and beyond the region; Drive regional prosperity; Bolster Indo-Pacific security; Build regional resilience to transnational threat.
Democracy, once so prominently highlighted, is no longer held up as an ideological banner – although, says the document, America will continue to invest in democratic institutions and governance.
It will also strengthen military treaty alliances currently with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. There is no mention that Thailand is governed by a military regime.
The role of China is put in perspective. The PRC’s ambition is to become the world’s most influential power and what is described as ‘its coercion and aggression’ spans the globe. America’s objective, however, is not ‘to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates’.
Nowhere in the 19-page document is the Chinese Communist Party mentioned, nor its United Front operation designed to infiltrate foreign governments, or the Marxist-Leninist structure that, until recently, was a favourable catchphrase among Western analysts.
All those elements remain part of the Chinese system, but the message from the White House is to define the Indo-Pacific on its own terms and not through a prism set by Beijing.
In order to achieve this, the US needs to put far more diplomatic and trade boots on the ground to balance the omnipresence of Chinese officials who span the region with their carrot and stick diplomacy.
The Trump years of withdrawal gave Beijing a relatively empty canvas on which to grow influence in areas ranging from military relationships to the distribution of medicines and vaccines. The US must now reverse that with an urgent increase in personal contact between American and Asian officials, boosted by the odd phone call from President Biden to his regional counterparts.
The narratives should switch from one of containing China to new ones about trade, infrastructure building, technology and development in alliance with the US and others.
Time, however, is not on America’s side. Looking ahead to 2024, the very real spectre looms of the return of Donald Trump, or a leader of similar stripe. Asia has already been through one pendulum swing of American electoral cycles and has become wary of long-term promises.
The US could make a start by applying now to join the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a concept which originated under the Obama administration, but which Trump cancelled.
It should also initiate infrastructure projects that capture the public imagination in a way that China has done with its Belt and Road Initiative.
This softer approach from the US would give the countries of the Indo-Pacific the space to formulate what the region itself wants and how to realise those ambitions without being knocked back and forth by competing larger powers.