After the Obama administration took office in 2009, the United States began to rapidly adjust its global strategy, and the Asia-Pacific rebalance became the moniker of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy. In 2017, Trump entered the White House. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has again become the most important regional strategy of this U.S. government. From the Asia-Pacific rebalance to the Indo-Pacific strategy, what are the similarities and differences in the strategies deployed by the two presidents of the Democratic and Republican parties of the United States for the regions surrounding China? Behind the different names and formulations, what variations and contradictions do these strategies reflect in overall U.S. diplomacy? What enlightenment can the practice of U.S. regional strategy in the past decade bring to China’s diplomacy? As the first term of the Trump administration is about to expire, this article attempts to make a preliminary analysis and provide an answer to these questions.
From Asia-Pacific Rebalancing to Indo-Pacific Strategy
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama declared himself the first “president of the Pacific” of the United States. A focus on the Asia-Pacific was a prominent feature of the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy. However, when discussing the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy, the general consensus in academic and strategic circles is that it basically began in 2011. On October 11, 2011, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton published an article, “America’s Pacific Century,” in Foreign Policy magazine, emphasizing that “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” This article is generally regarded as an “overture” to the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance. On November 17 of the same year, then-president Obama delivered a speech at the Australian Parliament. This speech is considered to be an official launch to the United States’ Asia-Pacific rebalancing. According to Obama’s argument, the Asia-Pacific rebalance included several aspects: first, maintaining a strong and modern U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region; second, strengthening relations with regional allies and partnerships and strengthening contacts with regional organizations; third, developing a more cooperative relationship with China; fourth, expanding partnerships through regional trade arrangements; and fifth, establishing partnerships with “emerging democracies” in the region to strengthen domestic governance mechanisms in each country. At the beginning of the launch of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the Obama administration used the term “pivot” to describe the essence of this strategy; that is, the United States launched the Asia-Pacific rebalance in order to shift the focus of the U.S. global strategy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. However, due to concerns about a misinterpretation of this as “abandonment” by the United States of allies in Europe, the Middle East, and other regions, the Obama administration subsequently suspended the “pivot” and concentrated on using the term “rebalancing.” In the years following the launch of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the Obama administration focused on the military security dimension of “rebalancing,” shifting the U.S. Navy and Air Force to the Asia-Pacific region while also introducing a new operational concept of “air-sea combat.” After entering the administration’s second term, the Asia-Pacific rebalance focused on expanding into economic and social fields, and the five pillars gradually became balanced.
After Trump entered the White House in January 2017, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy replaced the Asia-Pacific rebalance and became the United States’ regional strategy in the vast space from the east coast of the Pacific to the west coast of the Indian Ocean. In terms of geopolitics, German scholar Karl Haushofer proposed the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” as early as the 1920s. In the past decade, leaders and academic circles in Japan, India, Australia, and other countries have begun to use this concept even before the Trump administration took office. In 2011, Hillary Clinton also used the “Indo-Pacific” concept in her article, “America’s Pacific Century.”
The Trump administration systematically discussed the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” in its first year in office. On October 18, 2017, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson gave a speech on U.S.-India relations at the U.S. think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, proposing the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” In November 2017, when President Trump attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, he first proposed that the focus of his government’s Asia-Pacific policy is “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” In December of the same year, the Trump administration issued its first National Security Strategy, including, for the first time, a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a part of the national strategy. In January 2018, the National Defense Strategy report of the U.S Department of Defense proposed the military dimension of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” When describing the strategic environment facing the United States, the report on the one hand vigorously attacks China’s attempts to reshape the order and seek hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region; on the other hand, the Indo-Pacific is clearly listed as the top of the three major geopolitical priorities for the U.S. military, and the report sends a message to comprehensively enhance the capabilities of the U.S. military in the region. According to the content of the report, “partners” should aim to strengthen relations with regional alliance countries and “promote networked regions,” mainly focusing on the relationship between the United States and regional small and medium-sized countries and regional organizations. In October 2018, U.S. vice president Mike Pence delivered a speech on China policy, using the Free and Open Indo-Pacific as one of several measures to deal with China’s rise, and he did not shy away from linking the Indo-Pacific strategy with the response to China’s rise. In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy report. In December of the same year, the U.S. State Department released its report on the region. Compared with the military’s Indo-Pacific Strategy report, the U.S. State Department’s report particularly emphasizes regional economic and trade relations. These strategic documents and leaders’ speeches systematically outline the main content of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
To observe the direction of U.S. diplomatic strategy, we should observe the continuity of the United States in this region over the past decade. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. global strategy lacked a clear sense of direction. On the one hand, the Bush and Clinton administrations continued to handle Russia’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe and expanded the dividends of the Cold War with NATO’s eastward expansion; on the other hand, they participated in and launched several wars to deal with sudden crises in the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the sudden escalation of the fight against terrorism gave clarity and focus to the U.S. global strategy. However, the heavy costs of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the successive rise of some emerging market economies made the Obama administration realize that the U.S. global strategy must be adjusted. The Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance signified that the United States had begun to make up its mind to adjust its global strategic focus. The Trump administration’s internal affairs and foreign affairs can be described as “Obama policies in reverse,” but its understanding of the global strategic focus is as clear as that of the Obama administration. From the perspective of geographic scope, there are certain differences between the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific, but their degree of overlap is quite high. What’s more, during the Bush and Obama administrations, the relationship between the United States and India had been improving. The Indo-Pacific strategy is in the same line as the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance in terms of strategic focus, highlighting the shift of the U.S. global strategic focus to China’s surrounding regions and to maintaining strong continuity. With the imminent conclusion of the Trump administration’s first term, it has been more than 10 years since the United States shifted its global strategic focus. Judging from the strategic recognition, planning, and actions of the United States, this shift was a foregone conclusion. Regardless of the final outcome of the 2020 U.S. election, the U.S. global strategy centered on the Indo-Pacific is bound to continue.
From a strategic point of view, from Asia-Pacific rebalance to the Indo-Pacific strategy, the United States has always attempted to manage and control the strategic situation in this region. From the perspective of U.S. global strategy, the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific are the only regions where the past two presidents of the United States have put forward a complete strategic vision in the past decade. Regardless of the final effect, Democratic and Republican governments have attempted to unite the United States’ allies, partner countries, and other countries in the region and comprehensively use policy tools in various fields such as the military, diplomacy, and economics to achieve its strategic goals. This shift in the U.S. strategic focus is of course directly related to the rise of China, but both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have avoided “single fights” with China on paper. It has instead become the bipartisan consensus of the United States to win over China’s neighboring countries to join together against China. Due to China’s growing influence in the surrounding areas, China’s periphery has naturally become a stage for Sino-U.S. games and competition. The relationships between China, the United States, and China’s neighboring countries will remain the main focus of future Sino-U.S. strategic games.
Differences and Variations between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and Asia-Pacific Rebalancing
Although the U.S. strategy in this region has shown considerable continuity from Asia-Pacific rebalancing to Indo-Pacific strategy, a careful comparison of the two strategies still reveals subtle and important differences.
First, from the perspective of strategic design, the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance can be said to be a regional strategy that embeds the United States’ China strategy, while the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a regional strategy that treats China as a target for confrontation. Compared with the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the intentions of this Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at China are more obvious and explicit. When the Obama administration proposed the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the strategic circles of various countries, especially those of China, believed it had obvious intentions against China. After the launch of the strategy, the U.S. government sent diplomats and scholars to communicate with China on many occasions to convey the message that Asia-Pacific rebalance was not specifically aimed at China. In previous official strategic announcements, the U.S. government has also deliberately emphasized that the Asia-Pacific rebalance does not exclude or target China. In his speech to the Australian Parliament, Obama specifically made “development of a more cooperative relationship with China” one of the five pillars of Asia-Pacific rebalancing. In practice, during the two terms of the Obama administration, China and the United States have indeed carried out effective cooperation on topics such as the North Korean nuclear issue, climate change, and World Trade Organization reforms. Of course, under the guidance of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the power of the U.S. military has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States has used the South China Sea issue to instigate China’s neighboring countries into laying “siege” to China. For instance, the active involvement of the United States in Myanmar’s domestic political changes and other such actions make it hard for China to dispel its doubts. In contrast, the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy does not even have the guise of its predecessor. In its various strategic documents, the Trump administration has not clearly stated whether the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy includes China. The absence of this statement seems to imply that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy does not include China. This situation did not change until the end of 2019. In December 2019, the U.S. State Department issued a report titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Advancing a Shared Vision”, stating that this strategy “does not exclude any country.” That same month, U.S. secretary of defense Mark Esper stated in a speech in Hanoi, Vietnam, that “the Indo-Pacific strategy extends to all nations, including China.” Considering that in the Indo-Pacific strategy announced by the Trump administration, every mention of the “rise of China,” “China threat,” and Belt and Road Initiative serve as a basic premise for the proposal of this strategy, the statements made by the U.S. State Department and Esper are, unfortunately, merely a form of diplomatic rhetoric or a theoretical possibility.
At the same time, in the process of promoting the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the Obama administration placed special emphasis on a “free, rules-based order.” This formulation, of course, includes intentions directed at China, implying that China “does not abide by the rules” on issues such as the South China Sea. This formulation, however, is generally more neutral. After all, “rules-based” is a term with relatively ambiguous values. Although the term “liberal” has a strong ideological color, this term mainly refers to the “liberal international order” often mentioned in Western strategic circles. Although this set of terms has not been adopted by China, the so-called “liberal international order” in the West basically overlaps with the “existing international order” in China. In the past four decades, China has made tremendous progress within this international order and on the premise of abiding by international rules. Chinese officials also use the term “rules-based order.” In contrast, the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focuses on the two concepts of “freedom” and “openness.” According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, “free” means that all countries in the region can exercise their sovereignty without interference from other countries and implement “good governance” at home to protect human rights. “Openness” mainly means that all countries can enter international waters, airspace, and cyberspace and enter other countries’ markets in a fair and reciprocal manner. The color of this formulation against China is much more obvious, and its orientation includes not only China’s foreign policy, but also China’s domestic system.
Second, from the perspective of strategic implementation, Asia-Pacific rebalancing is a relatively typical regional strategy, while the Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be described as a major power confrontation strategy that “acts” as a regional strategy. This difference is actually the difference between the overall diplomatic philosophy and diplomatic nature of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party of the United States: The Democratic Party of the United States prefers multilateralism and regionalism, while the Republican Party is more inclined to unilateralism. Under the guidance of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the Obama administration not only strengthened its relationship with its five allies in the Asia-Pacific region, but, in addition, they used the South China Sea and other issues to effectively mobilize some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to actively participate in an East Asian regional cooperation mechanism centered around ASEAN. In addition to the dimension of military security, the Obama administration actively participated in regional economic liberalization arrangements during its second term, accelerating, leading, and basically completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In contrast, the Indo-Pacific strategy has effectively mobilized large or medium regional powers such as Japan, India, and Australia. The restart of the Quad composed of these three countries and the United States is the most obvious institutionalized achievement under the framework of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Under the leadership of the United States, the Quad formed against China has become increasingly extreme, and their dialogues have been elevated to the ministerial level. From 2017 to 2019, the four countries held five rounds of dialogs. In 2020, the Quad invited New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States, Japan, and India may also invite Australia to participate in the 2020 Malabar military exercise, thereby creating a four-nation military exercise mechanism. However, compared with the Obama administration, the Trump administration has obviously not paid enough attention to the small and medium-sized countries in the region and the regional mechanism centered on ASEAN. In 2019, the United States only sent Robert O’Brien, its national security adviser, to participate in the East Asia Summit. This has become a typical example of the United States not paying attention to ASEAN and regional mechanisms. In addition, in the field of economics, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the TPP immediately after taking office, abandoning the most important economic achievement of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing. At the same time, the United States is not a negotiator of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which means that the United States has lost its grip on the regional economic platform. In the past four years, the United States has mainly conducted trade negotiations with regional countries on bilateral platforms, such as amending the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement with South Korea and signing the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement, obviously lacking enthusiasm for regional economic arrangements.
Third, judging from the impact of the implementation of relevant U.S. strategies, countries in the region other than China have also had subtle differences in their responses to the strategies implemented by the two presidents of the United States. On the whole, countries in the region were more accepting of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance. In the security field, cooperation between the United States and several of its allies, as well as India and Vietnam, is deepening, and the United States has used the South China Sea issue to attract some small and medium-sized countries in the region. In the economics field, TPP negotiations have attracted the attention and support of many countries in the region. Of course, these countries must attempt to strike a balance between China and the United States while “pulling the United States in to stay” so as to balance China. Therefore, during the Obama administration, these countries adopted an attitude of “a welcoming heart and cautious words” toward the Asia-Pacific Rebalancing strategy. In contrast, countries in the region have adopted “welcoming words and a complicated heart” toward the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. At the level of rhetoric and documents, the “enthusiasm” of regional countries for the Indo-Pacific strategy seems to have surpassed the Asia-Pacific rebalance. One notable indicator is that Japan, India, Australia, and ASEAN have all echoed the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States in different forms. At the same time, however, Japan has attempted to avoid linking its Indo-Pacific strategy with the confrontation between China and the United States. Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy places particular emphasis on the role of ASEAN in relevant waters. India has incorporated diplomatic traditions such as “strategic autonomy” into its Indo-Pacific strategy. In its ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook report, ASEAN emphasized the ASEAN-centric multilateral security architecture and the role of ASEAN in connecting all countries in the region. Obviously, while these countries are actively responding to the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, they have also been affected by the Trump administration’s America First strategic orientation. They feel the impact of the confrontations between China and the United States, as “where the elephants fight, the grasslands suffer,” and many are deeply worried about the possibility of the original regional mechanism being split and marginalized.
Contradictions and Revelations from the U.S. Regional Strategy
From Asia-Pacific rebalancing to the Indo-Pacific strategy, the U.S. regional strategy has always had a deep internal contradiction: this is the same contradiction between the U.S. regional strategy and the U.S. strategy toward China. The Indo-Pacific region is a rapidly rising highland in the transfer of world power, and in this highland China stands out as the most prominent peak. The goal of the U.S, regional strategy is to determine whether to adapt to this increasingly important region first or to rather respond to the challenges brought about by the rise of China. From the official discourse of the United States, both are of course the starting point for the U.S. government when formulating its strategy, but there will inevitably be the question of which is first and which is of most importance. The Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance seemed to focus more on the importance of the region. However, under this strategic design and strategic layout, U.S. policymakers seemed to think that they cannot effectively deal with the rise of China. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy seems to come from a perspective of dealing with China, but such a strategic design and layout will give regional countries the impression that the United States is building an “anti-China alliance.” This, in turn, has stirred doubt among regional countries as to the merits of supporting and cooperating with the U.S. strategy, leading to a failure of the U.S. “regional response to China” mentality. On the whole, the history of Asia-Pacific rebalancing and the Indo-Pacific strategy over the past decade may bring us several revelations.
First, the U.S. regional strategic center has been shifted, and this shift has also won the support of several countries around China—to a certain extent. In the past few years, China-U.S. strategic competition and even strategic confrontation have increasingly become the most prominent and core contradiction in contemporary international relations. Against this background, the shift of the U.S. global strategic focus to China’s periphery has become irreversible. Of note is that this shift of the U.S. global strategy has to a certain extent obtained the support and cooperation of some countries around China. It is a relatively common psychology for neighboring countries to use the United States to balance China and the certainty that existing powers can bring to balance the uncertainty brought about by rising powers. We should have a clear understanding of this.
Second, the implementation of the U.S. regional strategy is limited, and we should maintain strategic confidence. Judging from past practice, the ability of the United States to implement strategies generally falls short of expectations. Whether in terms of the Asia-Pacific rebalance or the Indo-Pacific strategy, “though the thunder roars loudly, little rain will fall.” There are many factors restricting the implementation of the U.S. strategy. First of all, the two-party political system of the United States and its domestic political polarization over the past two decades have caused a pendulum swing in U.S. foreign strategy, affecting its coherence. Second, the United States’ own capabilities are limited. Although the United States is known as an Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific country, it is geographically isolated from this region, and the resources it invests in this region are limited. Whether it is the Asia-Pacific rebalance or the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the U.S. military is stretched thin, and it lacks sufficient economic and social support. Last, China’s neighboring countries are reluctant to choose sides between China and the United States because this is not in their national interests. In the course of the trilateral interaction of China, the United States, and regional countries over the past decade, we have gradually seen the true attitudes of neighboring countries between China and the United States.