There is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that China’s ascendance is a major strategic concern for U.S. and international security and stability. This is reflected in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, which recalibrates U.S. foreign policy to address the challenges posed to American power and interests from escalating geopolitical competition with China and Russia. After a recent trip to the Indo-Pacific region, Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) and Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) said they came away alarmed at how China is tightening its grip on U.S. allies across the region. What can the U.S. do to address China’s power projection and coercion in the Indo-Pacific and beyond?

From left to right: Rep. Ed Case (D-HI), USIP’s Amb. George Moose and Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) at USIP.
From left to right: Rep. Ed Case (D-HI), USIP’s Amb. George Moose and Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) at USIP.

That is a question that Congress is increasingly focused on, said Rutherford last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue. And for good reason: “The [U.S-China] relationship will define our world for future generations,” said Case.

China’s Power Projection

It’s been six years since China introduced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive, trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment project that spans the globe. Rutherford said he worried that the BRI “is planting a future where Chinese, not U.S. leadership, is assumed.” “China isn’t just building ports or airfields without some sort of aim or strategic incentive,” added Case.

China is “leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce other nations” to reorder the region to its advantage, said a Pentagon strategy report on the Indo-Pacific released in June.

One of the most illustrative examples of China’s coercive tactics is in Sri Lanka. Two years ago, Sri Lanka gave China a 99-year lease and controlling stake in its Hambantota port as a way to meet Colombo’s unsustainable debt loads, even though local communities protested over fears of a loss of sovereignty. Beijing turned its ally’s struggles into its strategic advantage. “What happened in Sri Lanka should never happen again,” said Rutherford.

A recent USIP Special Report found that smaller South Asian nations are “increasingly aware of the potentially negative impacts and unintended consequences of Chinese financing of development projects.” And while there are certainly drawbacks, the report did find that these countries have benefitted from the increased connectivity that has come with the BRI.

For many countries unable to attain financing for large-scale infrastructure projects, the BRI is the only game in town—but one that can come with a steep price. “Many BRI partners are now worried about the dangers of debt distress, loss of sovereignty, increased corruption, environmental degradation, lack of transparency, and unfair labor practices that often accompany these projects,” wrote Jennifer Staats, the Institute’s director for East and Southeast Asia Programs, in a USIP commentary. Despite the Chinese government’s lofty rhetoric, “the initial euphoria has largely turned to fatigue,” she wrote.

While the congressmen’s remarks focused on China’s efforts in the Indo-Pacific, both acknowledged that Beijing is seeking to project power and influence from Latin America to Africa to Central Asia with similarly coercive tactics.

A ‘China-Based Order’

The U.S. has sought to bring China into the fold of the rules-based international order—just look at China’s 2001 admission to the World Trade Organization. But, Beijing, said Case, is influencing the rules-based order in an effort to foster a “China-based rules order.” “We hoped that extending the rules-based order to China would mean it became a part of it,” said Case, but “China has picked and chosen when to follow this order; the South China sea is the best example.”

China isn’t hemmed in by democratic norms and values, said Case. Beijing has “the kind of political system that allows them to work for the long game,” Rutherford concurred.

In the Indo-Pacific, many countries are trying to maintain a delicate balance, where China is their most important economic partner, but the U.S. is the most important strategic partner. China wants to reorient the regional order so that it’s both the most important economic and military partner. Rutherford said he was “amazed to see the imbalance of military power in the Indo-Pacific.”

Ultimately, the U.S can accommodate Chinese efforts to pursue its goals within the rules-based order, but, said Case, “always from a position of strength.”

The U.S. Needs a Comprehensive Approach

The U.S.-China relationship is “deep and complex,” said George Moose, the vice chair of USIP’s Board of Directors, who moderated the discussion. “How do we sort through this complicated agenda?” he asked. In response, Rutherford said, “We need to start bringing light to the economic coercion that China is using throughout the world … Most folks have no idea how bad it is.”

He argued that the U.S. should pursue bilateral trade agreements with American partners and allies in the region as a way to counter China’s economic influence. After all, “America first, doesn’t need to mean America alone,” Rutherford said. Case also discussed the importance of partnerships in the region, pointing to countries like Japan, Australia, and Singapore and the constructive engagement the U.S. has had with these allies. “We need to partner with the rest of the world to provide an alternative.”

Unfortunately, said Case, “We have been inconsistent in our focus on those alliances. These alliances need strengthening.” Rutherford agreed: “[The U.S. is] still the partner of choice in the region, but they [Indo-Pacific countries] are beginning to question our resolve and whether [the U.S.] will truly be there for them.”

While continued investment in a strong military is important, projecting “other forms of influence in the region needs to be there,” said Case. “There needs to a cohesive, overall approach” that promotes U.S. interests and values in free trade, development, democracy, and human rights.

Looking at U.S. soft power, Case said, “Our cultural response is important,” adding, “democracy is a better way of life.” Indeed, Rutherford argued that the U.S. needs to “be aggressive in efforts to win hearts and minds” in the region and “show our allies that the U.S. is ready to take on these challenges.”

Related Publications

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Friday, September 17, 2021

By: Brian Harding; Carla Freeman, Ph.D; Mirna Galic; Henry Tugendhat; Rachel Vandenbrink

The United States and the United Kingdom have made the rare decision to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia in a move seen aimed at China. In a joint statement on September 15, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced the formation of a trilateral partnership — AUKUS — that, among other things, seeks to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests.” USIP’s Brian Harding, Carla Freeman, Mirna Galic, Henry Tugendhat and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the significance of the decision and what to expect next.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Garrett Nada; Donald N. Jensen, Ph.D. ; Gavin Helf, Ph.D.; Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.; Tamanna Salikuddin

While the Taliban’s swift advance into Kabul over the weekend has left much of the West reeling, Afghans themselves will bear the brunt of the militant group’s rule. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will feel the most immediate impact. Earlier this year, Russia, China and Pakistan affirmed that the future of Afghanistan should be decided through dialogue and political negotiations. How will they engage with the Taliban now?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Climate, COVID and China Drive U.S.-Pacific Islands Engagement

Climate, COVID and China Drive U.S.-Pacific Islands Engagement

Monday, August 9, 2021

By: Jennifer Staats, Ph.D.; Brian Harding

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) held its 51st leaders meeting on August 6, with Fiji serving as virtual host. The PIF is comprised of 18 members, and the United States is among 18 PIF Dialogue Partners that participate in an annual post-forum dialogue. This year, President Joe Biden led the U.S. delegation and delivered his own address, a first for a U.S. president and a demonstration of the strategic importance of Pacific Island nations to U.S. priorities like climate change, COVID-19 and competition with China. USIP’s Jennifer Staats and Brian Harding discuss what PIF members and Washington want from each other and the major issues facing the region.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy; Economics & Environment

As China Poses Challenges, Europe Makes its Presence Known in the Indo-Pacific

As China Poses Challenges, Europe Makes its Presence Known in the Indo-Pacific

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

By: Mirna Galic

A German frigate that left the country yesterday for the Indo-Pacific region will be Berlin’s first warship to cross the South China Sea in almost 20 years. This follows the United Kingdom’s late July announcement that two of its warships would have a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific. Currently, the U.K. has a highly publicized carrier strike group in the region, featuring the largest U.K. warship ever deployed. And earlier this year, France deployed an amphibious ready group through the region — accompanied by the February revelation that a French nuclear attack submarine had completed passage through the South China Sea. Although the U.S. naval presence in the region is well known, Europe’s has received much less attention — that is, until recently.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

View All Publications


Related Projects

Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues

Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues

The U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded national institute, will host a new series of Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues. USIP will bring together leaders from both political parties in public discussions to develop solutions for urgent national security and foreign policy problems.

View All