Competing with China in the Indo-Pacific

Rhetorically, the Trump administration has embraced great power competition with China as a central facet of its strategy to the Indo-Pacific region. Its National Security Strategy aptly described a world in which China is challenging American power, influence, and interests across the region. Even more explicitly, the National Defense Strategy identified inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, as the primary concern in U.S. security.

Acknowledging competition with China and prioritizing it as a top U.S. national security priority is a welcome development. China’s approach to economic and foreign policy, as well as its military investments, has for years suggested that Beijing clearly saw itself as competing with the United States for power and influence in the Indo-Pacific. As China’s economy has grown, it has successfully built significant political influence across the region and built an advanced military capability that may soon challenge American military primacy in Asia. China has also begun to construct alternative political and economic architectures that circumvent established institutions and reflect Beijing’s interests and prerogatives.

China today is a confident economic and political power that is charting its own path in both domestic and international affairs. It is increasingly assertive in international affairs and is willing to tolerate turbulence and risk in the pursuit of its interests. China is investing in advanced technologies and military capabilities that will put it in the economic driver’s seat for the coming decades, and has demonstrated an ability to use all elements of national power in the pursuit of its goals. China has identified its objectives and how it plans to achieve them, and follows through by devoting significant resources to those ends. This puts China in direct competition with the United States, which seeks to both preserve its own power and influence in the region while also preserving a liberal order that has enabled stability and prosperity to develop across the region for decades.

Yet there appears to be a significant gap between rhetoric coming from Washington and actions by the United States. In fact, it remains unclear how the United States is going to pursue great power competition with China, and if prioritizing that competition will translate beyond the page.

China is investing in advanced technologies and military capabilities that will put it in the economic driver’s seat for the coming decades, and has demonstrated an ability to use all elements of national power in the pursuit of its goals. 

Most immediately, while China has spent decades imbedding itself into the economic lifeblood of the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) fundamentally diminished the ability of the United States to compete with China for influence in the region and gave Beijing a geo-economic vacuum to fill. China’s ambitious belt and road initiative (BRI) demonstrates a strategic appreciation by Beijing of the economic linkages across the Indo-Pacific, and the United States still has no geopolitical response.

The lack of a practical U.S. competitive strategy with China cuts across every element of national power. Chinese investment in research in development increased 30-fold between 1991 and 2015. As described by terrific research done by CSIS, Beijing today spends more on R&D than Japan, Germany, and South Korea combined, and is second only to the United States. According to some estimates, China will overtake the United States as the top R&D spender by 2020. As a result of decades of these investments, the Chinese economy today is a source for innovation across several different sectors. For example, China has made significant advancements, and may already lead the United States, in the fields of quantum computing and artificial intelligence–areas that have significant military and commercial potential. Yet in its budget proposals, the Trump administration has significantly diminished science and funding research–it has repeatedly sought to eliminate research initiatives at the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other budgets are either being shrunk or staying flat (depending on Congress’s appropriations), meaning that the United States is standing still while China races forward.

Militarily, China continues to invest in capabilities that are specifically designed to exploit perceived U.S. military weaknesses. No longer a backward and obsolescent military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today represents a cutting-edge fighting force that fields increasingly sophisticated capabilities at significant numbers. By increasing its defense budget by 6-10 percent per year for decades, China is now reaping the benefits of a more advanced military. Its fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, recently entered service and poses a significant threat to U.S. air and naval power in the Western Pacific. This means that presumed air dominance, which the United States has enjoyed without challenge since the 1950s, is coming to an end. While the Department of Defense under Secretary Ash Carter and Deputy Secretary Robert Work embraced innovation and sought to harness technologies from the private sector for military applications, such efforts appear to have lost steam in the past year. A critical question will be how the Department of Defense plans to spend the $716 billion requested by the White House for 2019–will the resources go to the great power competition prioritized in the National Defense Strategy, or to other areas? As the saying goes, show me your budget and I’ll show you your strategy.

The lack of a practical U.S. competitive strategy with China cuts across every element of national power. 

Prevailing in a competition with China will take far more than words on a page and a few speeches. The United States will need to devote significant resources to this project and find a way to utilize all elements of its national power–including the remarkable innovation and productivity of its private sector–to stay ahead. The scale of this dynamic will be startling–it will require leadership, vision, and consistency that we have not seen since the Manhattan Project or President Kennedy’s decision to land a man on the moon. And it will require resources and a degree of focus that has not been seen in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. If prevailing in great power competition is indeed the driving factor in U.S. foreign and defense policies, we need to be investing, planning, and organizing for it.

The U.S. competition with China will be a defining aspect of the 21st century, and I expect that future historians will write that the first years were slow going. It has taken the United States far too long to recognize that it was in a great power competition that has significant implications for its own interests, prosperity, and security. While the Obama administration made some progress in adjusting to this new reality, it is now the responsibility of the Trump Administration to take the next step. Recognizing we have a problem and understanding its scale is the first step toward finding a solution. The time has come to stop talking about competition, and begin actually competing.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.