ISABELLA LEE WRITES — China has been on the rise for the last several decades both in economic and political power. Other countries with shared interests have been trying to conceptualize foreign policy initiatives that can both contain and maintain their relationship with China while preserving their own interests. Recently China marked a national holiday by flying military aircraft over Taiwan in an obvious attempt to make a point. Tensions over Taiwan between the U.S. and China are tightening further: The island has merged as a pivotal piece of the Indo Pacific in terms of the contest for security and economic advantage.
The Indo Pacific seems to be of increasing concern for world powers, but what has the U.S. done for its part? The ‘free and open Pacific’ policy, otherwise known as FOIP, was coined at the start of 2016 by Japan and the United States to counter. Japan and the U.S. share strategic interests in limiting China’s sphere of influence while emphasizing the need for regional rules and order: China, as is the case with all major powers through the decades, will tend to ignore international rules of law it believes work against its sovereign interests. This nationalist attitude threatens the security of the smaller actors in its region, along with their allies, especially the U.S., itself a sometime outlier on international law when it wants its own way.
The approaches of the Obama and Trump administrations set precedent for the Biden administration. The start of the Obama administration coincided with the beginning of the deeply destabilizing 2008 financial crisis, originating in Wall Street. China took the internationally widespread perception of Wall Street amorality as an opportunity to expand its power and global reach, expanding its long-range modernization military capabilities aimed at avoiding conflict through deterrence and limiting the movement of U.S. troops on the high seas.
The threat to U.S. power inspired the first China policy rethink shift under the Obama administration. The pivot or rebalance policy was formally introduced by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in 2011. Rebalance policy proposed to scale down U.S. warfighting in the Middle East due to endless costs and to refocus attention on the Pacific and Asia. The policy rethink had three main concerns: security, economic advancements, and diplomacy.
The three main pillars were supported by five key policy initiatives:1, improving coordination with allies in Asia, 2, adding cooperation/capacity-building with emerging powers, 3, re-forming a diplomatic relationship with China, 4, engaging with multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, and 5, successfully concluding negotiations in the economic sector. This marked the start of the multilateral approach to China — a group effort to contain China.
The Trump approach was different; the emphasis was on direct economic and political competition among China. The strategy flatly labeled China a revisionist power and a threat to international security. With that, the Trump administration turned away from the multilateral approach to China in favor of a unilateral approach by which bipolar competition would intensify.
World leaders are now looking to what Joe Biden will do. Some worry he will not be strong enough with China as he has asserted his belief in FOIP and cooperation with other regional actors. At the same time there is at least as much global concern as to what China’s leader Xi Jinping will next do. It seems foolish to try to predict how this will all play out. It would be nice to hope that the coolest heads will prevail.