By Daniel Twining
As Vice President Mike Pence heads to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this week, Washington’s hawkish posture toward China is once again being scrutinized. In fact, an underappreciated feature of the Trump administration’s uneven foreign policy is its new Indo-Pacific strategy.
President Barack Obama’s previous attempt to “pivot” to Asia underdelivered: China militarized the South China Sea, North Korea accelerated nuclear and missile development, and Burma’s democratic opening gave way to brutal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya civilians.
The common denominator of these challenges is the same: autocratic governments that show as little regard for their neighbors’ rights as they do for those of their own citizens. Such governments drive instability and are easily manipulated by foreign powers, leaving American interests in this critical region less secure.
That’s why it’s refreshing that Vice President Mike Pence is stressing human freedom as a surer source of regional prosperity and stability than strongman control. His insight is at the core of post-war American foreign policy: that the fate of all democracies is linked, and that democracies make more reliable partners. This recognition is one of our most powerful assets in the contest for regional influence — and is why it is vital that democratic governance is embedded in the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
The United States has much to play for in the Indo-Pacific. It is home to the world’s most populous nations, its top three economies, and its largest armies and navies. Two-thirds of world trade moves through the region. Asia is also home to the only country that could credibly challenge American power, and the wealth and peace that flow from it.
The astronomical rise of China poses a unique geopolitical challenge. Never before has a country transformed from poverty-ridden to middle class without loosening political control. Historically, economic freedom has been a driver of human freedom, but China under President Xi Jinping has done the opposite. Using state-directed economic growth and new digital surveillance technologies, Beijing exercises unprecedented control over Chinese citizens while strengthening one-party rule.
It cannot last forever, but while it does, Xi offers China as a model for other authoritarians seeking rapid economic growth while monopolizing political power. Xi pitches his “China Dream” as the development of a prosperous, technologically advanced society under the Communist Party’s tutelage that is not only stable at home but the natural leader of Asia. Never mind that key Asian powers rely on alliances with America to protect their security — Xi casts the U.S. as an interloper that should mind its own business while the new Middle Kingdom imposes its own form of order.
China has used a novel toolkit to project Chinese financial and political influence, eroding the liberal international order and stepping into the vacuum. The Communist Party employs “united front” tactics to compel Chinese students and business leaders abroad to act as political agents. China’s Belt and Road Initiative dwarfs the Marshall Plan in scale: Its ambition is nothing short of creating a new global infrastructure, embedding the markets of smaller nations, and the interests of their political and economic elites, within the emerging Sinosphere.
The Belt and Road’s fallout is already apparent in countries where it has become associated with massive corruption and state capture of ruling elites. In Sri Lanka, the former government became so enmeshed in a Chinese debt trap that it signed away the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port on a 99-year lease to Beijing. In Cambodia, Chinese interests own more than half the land and dominate the economy, including illegal timber and mining. In both countries, rulers formed political alliances with China that have helped to insulate their governments from public accountability.
Yet as the consequences of such arrangements are becoming clear, the people of the Indo-Pacific are beginning to push back. In Australia, lawmakers who have been alarmed by Chinese penetration of their open society passed new laws banning foreign campaign contributions and restricting foreign investment in strategic sectors. In Malaysia, citizens rejected one-party rule by voting in a new government that has frozen questionable Chinese infrastructure projects and exposed massive foreign corruption. In the Maldives, 90 percent of voters turned out in recent elections to depose the elected dictator who had cozied up to China at the expense of his country’s interests.
It turns out that democracy is a useful antidote to efforts by China’s government and state-directed enterprises to secure strategic advantage by transacting with corrupt elites. As Vice President Pence recently put it, “Nations that empower their citizens, nurture civil society, fight corruption and guard their sovereignty are stronger homes for their people and better partners for the United States. Conversely, nations that oppress their people often violate their neighbors’ sovereignty as well. Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Many see China as Asia’s pacesetter. In fact, its Marxist-Leninist political system makes it an aberration — as well as a threat to countries with more open systems, who fear subversion from Chinese economic or political meddling. America’s interest lies in an Indo-Pacific region whose citizens can fulfill their full potential through freedom and resist new forms of empire-building. Such countries will be natural partners in sustaining a balance that keeps the peace in the world’s emerging center of wealth and power.