The US entered into 21st century with clear objective and intent to maintain superpower status and prevent any potential challenger worldwide, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. China’s remarkable human, economic, military, and technological growth under President Xi Jinping has left the US apprehensive. The rapid pace of China’s development has caused unease in Washington, where these gains are viewed with concern. The current state of relations between the US and China has grown increasingly tense & complex. Numerous works of literature have drawn parallels between this difficult chapter in Sino-US bilateral relationship with Cold War. In addition to that, many analysts have warned of the possibility of a “Thucydides trap” scenario, where tensions between the two states could lead to conflict. These tensions are driven by the US determination to maintain hegemonic status and prevent any challenger, particularly as China has strengthened its military capabilities, becoming a formidable contender.
The Biden administration has consistently emphasized its intention to engage in competition with China rather than containment, aiming to prevent the situation from escalating into conflict. However, despite this rhetoric, there are observable actions that suggest containment efforts are indeed underway. This includes both economic and strategic dimensions. President Biden has continued certain policies initiated during the Trump administration concerning China. This continuity can be attributed to a bipartisan consensus on the China issue, which aligns with populist and political sentiments in the US. At present, the Asia-Pacific region has become the primary arena where Sino-US competition unfolds. The US has shifted its focus to this region in an effort to counter China’s expanding influence and address critical flashpoints like South China Sea, East China Sea, and island of Taiwan. China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, including its recent release of the 10-dash line map, and its forceful pursuit of territorial claims, have given the US an opportunity to position itself as a regional guardian. The US seeks to act as a stabilizing force, not only for the benefit of regional countries looking to balance China’s influence but also to assert its commitment to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) region and to protect a rules based order.
The ever-changing regional and international political landscape has presented a myriad of challenges for the US in its efforts to formulate and execute a cohesive policy towards China. The first significant challenge for the US in its strategic competition with China is resource allocation. Effectively engaging on diplomatic, economic, and military fronts in the Asia-Pacific region demands substantial resources. According to experts, the US had sought to redirect its focus from Afghanistan and pursuing stability in its relationship with Russia, as well as revisiting the Iran nuclear deal, with the aim of freeing up resources for the Asia-Pacific. However, events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have disrupted this strategic calculation. The ongoing war in Ukraine has prompted significant support from the Biden administration and the US congress. To date, they have directed over $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military assistance. As a result, the challenge of resource allocation is likely to intensify in the coming years as the US seeks to navigate its complex policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific region.
The second major challenge in US policy towards the Asia-Pacific region lies in the emphasis on security partnerships and alliances as the foundation of its approach. While these security ties are crucial, they must coexist with economic cooperation, where many countries value economic cooperation more than traditional security cooperation, particularly given China’s status as their largest trading partner. Moreover, building a new economic framework in the region is essential, and the US needs to make economic policy a linchpin of the Asia-Pacific policy. The withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a signature agreement of Barack Obama during the Trump presidency provided China with an opportunity to expand its economic influence in the region. China has made substantial investments to attract US allies into its economic ventures, aiming to weaken the US security leadership role. The most important development in the region was the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between the 15 Asia-Pacific countries. The RCEP solidified China’s regional geopolitical ambitions around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and helped them to draft the rules of trade in the region. RCEP is considered a victory over US leadership in Asia. Although the US announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), its success has not met expectations. So, balancing security and economic interests remains a complex challenge for the US in the Asia-Pacific region.
The third significant challenge in US policy toward the Asia-Pacific region is the lack of unified consensus among its regional allies. While, the US side places great emphasis on security partnerships and alliances to counterbalance China, achieving unity among its allies proves difficult. Take, for instance, the relationship between South Korea and Japan. The history of past incidents continues to cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea, contributing to a certain level of mistrust. Moreover, ASEAN countries have their own issues and competing claims, which hinder efforts to form a unified front against China. The reluctance of regional countries to adopt the same perspective on China as the US does presents a major challenge. The regional countries are cautious about provoking China and prefer to balance their relationship with both the US and China. It is important to highlight that, while privately supportive of the US role in the region, the regional countries often refrain from public support to avoid sending mixed messages to China. The above mentioned regional dynamics revealed that, achieving cohesion among these diverse regional actors remains a complex task for US policy in the region.
Apart from these challenges, a prominent concern is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compelled the US to prioritize countering the present threat posed by Russia, potentially diverting attention from the longer-term challenge of Chinese dominance. The fear is that if the US sacrifices this Pivot to Asia policy, China could exploit this opening to expand its influence and advance its own global security agenda. Furthermore, there is a related worry that an aggressive containment strategy, if not carefully implemented, might have the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than deterring China, it might actually provoke China. Moreover, it is valid observation to note that the challenge posed by China is far more complex than the one the US faced during the Cold War with the USSR. Unlike the USSR, China is not only a military power but also an economic powerhouse deeply integrated into the global economy. These all factors unite together to pose serious challenge to the US efforts aimed against China in Asia-Pacific region.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.