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

How Interactive Conflict Resolution Empowers Youth in China and Taiwan

How Interactive Conflict Resolution Empowers Youth in China and Taiwan

Friday, January 24, 2020

By: Paul Kyumin Lee

While the international community has been closely watching the violent showdown between police and protesters in Hong Kong, many are concerned that the next crisis involving China could happen with Taiwan, a longstanding partner of the United States and a beacon of democratic values in East Asia. Beijing's increasingly aggressive policy toward Taiwan, a hardening of identities on both sides of the Strait, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent reelection in Taipei reflect two seemingly irreconcilable core interests: Beijing’s claim as the sole legitimate authority over “one China” and the Taiwanese people’s desire to maintain their unique identity and political system. Although official Cross-Strait negotiations remain deadlocked, young Chinese and Taiwanese people have been attempting to overcome this impasse through interactive conflict resolution (ICR).

Type: Blog

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Youth

Xi Jinping’s Visit to Myanmar: What Are the Implications?

Xi Jinping’s Visit to Myanmar: What Are the Implications?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

By: Jason Tower; Jennifer Staats

From January 17-18, the chairman of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, travelled to Myanmar to promote bilateral ties and advance construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The visit saw the two sides commit to an ambitious economic agenda and building what China terms a “community of shared destiny.” The declarations of cooperation, however, failed to provide any clarity on how CMEC will address the countless questions and concerns that Myanmar has struggled with since its independence in 1948—issues likely to profoundly affect the two countries’ joint endeavors.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Amid the Central African Republic’s search for peace, Russia steps in. Is China next?

Amid the Central African Republic’s search for peace, Russia steps in. Is China next?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

By: Leslie Minney; Rachel Sullivan; Rachel Vandenbrink

The 2017 National Security Strategy refocused U.S. foreign and defense policy to address resurgent major power competition with Russia and China. In U.S. foreign policy, Africa has emerged as a frontline for this competition, as in recent years both Moscow and Beijing have sought to expand their influence and promote their interests on the continent. Nowhere is the role of major powers more apparent than in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russia has emerged as a key power broker amid a civil war that has simmered since 2012. Despite concerns about the need to counter other major powers, the best course for U.S. policy in CAR is to not allow competition with Russia and China to distract from the fundamental priority of supporting a democratic, inclusive path to peace.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

Strategic Implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Strategic Implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Monday, December 16, 2019

By: James Schwemlein

Great power politics is resurgent in South Asia today. China’s growing military ambition in the region is matched in financial terms by its Belt and Road Initiative, the largest and most advanced component of which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. What remains unclear is how the United States should navigate the new dynamic. This report, which is based on research and consultations with experts worldwide, addresses the question of how the India-Pakistan rivalry will play into the emerging great power competition.

Type: Special Report

Economics & Environment

View All Publications