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US and China present competing visions for the Pacific

William Yang Taipei
June 1, 2022

US President Biden's recent diplomatic tour has reassured allies of Washington's commitment to Asia. But China wants to present itself as an alternative to US-led order.

(L-R) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for photo
Leaders of the "Quad" grouping met in Japan during a visit from US President BidenImage: Masanori Genko/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden's inaugural visit to Asia in May was seen as a reminder that Washington's long-term foreign policy goals remain focused on Asia, even as the war in Ukraine currently takes center stage.

After Biden's tour, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the administration's China strategy in a highly anticipated speech, calling Beijing's geopolitical ambitions the "most serious long-term challenge to the international order."

Biden's four-day visit to US allies Japan and South Korea was also an effort to repair ties with Seoul and Tokyo that were frayed under former President Donald Trump.

While in South Korea, Biden met with newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol and struck agreements on bolstering the deployment of US military assets to the Korean Peninsula and increasing joint military exercises, which had been scaled back during the Trump administration.

In Japan, Biden met with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, which along with the US comprise the "Quad," an informal grouping of countries that aims to align security policies in the Indo-Pacific vis a vis China.

Biden also introduced an economic initiative called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which excludes China but includes a dozen countries in the region including Japan, India and Indonesia.

The White House said the framework will enable the US and its allies to "decide the rules of the road."

However, it stops short of being a free-trade pact, calling instead for "high-standard commitments" to "deepen economic engagement," but would not, for example, allow for a cut in US tariff rates. It is also subject to change, according to the political whims of the next potential US presidential administration.

Biden visits Japan and South Korea


Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the US Indo-Pacific strategy is based on entrenching rules, international laws, and standards that it prefers.

"As long as there are more actors signing up to these standards, it will shape the environment," he said, adding that if countries voluntarily comply with standards led by the US, it could raise the costs for them to comply with China's alternatives.

"It may then make it more difficult for China to push forward," he said. 

What does Beijing offer?

For years, China has been working to build what it sees as an alternative to an outdated US-led international order. More recently, Beijing has eyed partnerships with small Pacific Island nations. This has alarmed Australia in particular, which sees a Chinese foothold in the South Pacific as a security threat.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently on a 10-day tour of Pacific island nations, seeking among other things to shore up support for a Beijing-led regional trade and security deal, covering things like free trade, police training, and disaster resilience.

However, China met a setback when the 10 island nations did not agree on a joint communique outlining the plan following a meeting on Monday in Fiji with foreign ministers.

Wang Yi on a red carpet
China's top diplomat Wang Yi arrives in the Solomon Islands during a tour of the PacificImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Wang had hoped the countries would endorse the prepared agreement. After the meeting he said "further discussions were needed to shape consensus," and that China would continue to offer support to Pacific countries "with no political strings attached."

"Don't be too anxious and don't be too nervous, because the common development and prosperity of China and all the other developing countries would only mean great harmony, greater justice, and greater progress of the whole world," the Chinese foreign minister said.

Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told DW that China "learned the hard way" that everyone needs to be on board with multilateral agreements.

"The proposed communique simply hadn't gone through that consensus-building process that it needed to," she said.

"They overplayed their hand and did not sufficiently appreciate the fact that there will be differences of opinions across the Pacific about elements of the agreement," she added.

China already has a bilateral security deal it signed the with the Solomon Islands last month,  as it pursues other bilateral strategic avenues in the Pacific.

Wang Yi in Samoa
China already has a security deal with the Solomon IslandsImage: Vaitogi Asuisui Matafeo/AFP

In September 2021, China also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which would make it the biggest economy in a revamped version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP was signed by 12 Pacific Rim countries during the Obama administration as an extensive free-trade agreement, excluding China, and encompassing some 40% of global GDP. Former President Trump took the US out of the pact within days of taking office in 2017.

However, China is already part of the world's largest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It does not include the US.

Put into force in 2022, the RCEP envisions the elimination of tariffs and common rules around trade, intellectual property, e-commerce and competition. China is by far the most dominant economy in the RCEP, and analysts have said the pact will likely benefit Beijing the most.

On the strategic side, Beijing continues to claim sovereignty over international waters in the South China Sea. It has also taken an increasingly aggressive stance against Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland.

 An inevitable US-China rivalry?

In his policy speech, Secretary Blinken said that China was the "only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it."

However, Blinken underlined that Washington was not looking for conflict or a new Cold War, instead promising to strengthen international laws and agreements so all countries can "coexist and cooperate" in an "open and inclusive international system."

US still sees China as main threat

"The Biden administration's approach is to reassume US influence in multilateral settings and shape 'rules of the road' in ways that help the US sustain international influence and compete against China on more favorable terrain," said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at Australian National University (ANU), who is currently based in Taiwan. 

"At this juncture, when the global community is rallying around the US  partly for its leadership on the Ukraine crisis and on delivering for global COVID-relief  it would be unwise for Beijing to take the US head-on right now," he told DW.

On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang said Washington's views on China and bilateral relations between the world's top two economies have "gone seriously awry."

He also accused the US of being the source of chaos that "shakes the current international order."

"We want to tell the US side that Sino-US relations are not a zero-sum game designed by the US," Wang said, calling US strategy "unipolar hegemony."

Blinken said US policy wasn't to block China from its role as a major global power or try to prevent Beijing from advancing the interests of its people.

"But we will defend and strengthen the international law, agreements, principles, and institutions that maintain peace and security, protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations, and make it possible for all countries — including the United States and China — to coexist and cooperate,” he said.

While Blinken said Washington was ready to strengthen diplomacy and increase communication with Beijing across a full range of issues, analyst Chong from NUS said the current political climate in the US and China will make cooperation difficult.

"If there is any move that appears to be a compromise or accommodation, it will possibly be costly for either side," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn