Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

China's Indo-Pacific Folly

| Jan. 31, 2023

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Taffer, Andrew D. and David Wallsh.“China's Indo-Pacific Folly.” Foreign Affairs, January 31, 2023.

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