US-China competition is entering a new phase. Image: Twitter

The Indo-Pacific strategy newly floated by the Biden administration is doomed to fail as the United States has offered no economic benefits to its allies and partners in the region but only reiterated the “China threat theory,” according to Chinese officials and state media.

Chinese state media said in a series of articles and videos on Monday and Tuesday that Southeast Asian countries were worried that the United States’ groupings including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) would undermine the influence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially when the US had not joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which entered into force on January 1 this year.

At the same time, Beijing officials slammed the US for trying to suppress mainland China with Taiwan matters. They said Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy was more aggressive than the one unveiled by the Trump administration in June 2019 and would disrupt the peaceful environment in the region.

In 2011, the Barack Obama administration unveiled an approach to East Asia called the “Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific.” It said the region presented new opportunities to the US with expanding trade and investment and growing ranks of capable powers but also new challenges, including nuclear proliferation, intensifying maritime disputes and some countries’ backsliding in democratic governance and respect for human rights. In February 2016, the US signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with eleven countries but the free trade agreement did not come into force.

In January 2017, the US announced it was withdrawing from the TPP as the then-US President Donald Trump said the agreement would make the US lose wealth and income. The Trump administration then rolled out a new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept with new initiatives, including increased engagement in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Islands region, regional transparency and anti-corruption plans, and digital infrastructure and energy cooperation programs. It also said the US should respond more forcefully to Beijing’s destabilizing behavior and coercion of regional allies, which had undermined both US interests and the sovereignty of Indo-Pacific partners.

On June 1, 2019, the US Department of Defense said in its Indo-Pacific Strategy report that it was strengthening and evolving US alliances and partnerships into a networked security architecture to uphold the international rules-based order, which it said was undermined by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It said it would continue to cultivate intra-Asian security relationships capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.

On February 11 this year, the Biden administration unveiled a new Indo-Pacific strategy. It said American interests could only be advanced if the US could firmly anchor itself in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen the region, alongside its closest allies and partners. It said the intensifying American focus in the region was due in part to the fact that the region faced mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC.

“The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power,” according to the new strategy. The PRC’s coercion and aggression span the globe, but are “most acute in the Indo-Pacific. Our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the US, our allies and partners and the interests and values we share.”

It said the US would work with partners inside and outside of the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people. It added that the US would seek to manage competition with the PRC responsibly while seeking to work with the PRC in areas including climate change and nonproliferation.

Beijing of course would have none of this.

“Ill intentions underlie the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy devised under the pretext of the ‘China threat’,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, said Monday. “What the US says in its Indo-Pacific strategy is different from what it is actually doing. The US claims to advance freedom and openness in the region, but it’s in fact forming an exclusive clique through AUKUS and QUAD. It asserts to strengthen regional security, but it’s generating grave nuclear proliferation risks that would undermine regional peace and stability.”

Wang said the United Stastes’ Indo-Pacific strategy, resurrecting the Cold War mentality and bloc politics, had nothing new and no future and would bring only division and turbulence to the Asia-Pacific.

Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council, said relevant content of the US Indo-Pacific strategy report had gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, violated the one-China principle and basic norms governing international relations and undermined peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

On Monday, a commentary published by China Central TV said most of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia being an exception, adhered to their independent foreign policies and would not easily accept a regional strategy solely decided by the US.

“Whether the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy can be implemented does not depend on the will of the US, but on the reality of international relations,” said the commentary. “Countries in the Asia-Pacific region have long been able to see who is sincere and who is falsely displaying affection.”

The commentary said that when an eruption began on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai in January this year, the southern Pacific island received the first batch of relief supplies from China. It asserted that, from Covid-19 vaccine supply to economic recovery, China had proven itself to be a real contributor in the Asia-Pacific region with practical actions, which included its commitments in the RCEP. It said almost no country was willing to sacrifice its own interests to be tied to the American anti-China campaign.

Last November, riots broke out in the Solomon Islands due to people’s frustration with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government and chronic unemployment made worse by the pandemic. Sogavare, a pro-Beijing leader of the Pacific island, said foreign powers opposed to his 2019 decision to switch the Solomons’ diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China were behind the disturbances.

However, Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote in the parliament on December 6. After that, China sent police advisers to help train Solomons police, and equipment including shields, helmets and batons, media reported.

On February 12, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US would re-establish a Solomon Islands embassy as it attempted to curb China’s influence in the Pacific Island nation. The islands’ US embassy closed in 1993.

“In the Asia-Pacific region, the US is not a builder and protector, but a spoiler, destroyer and troublemaker,” Qiao Jihong, a journalist of Xinhua News Agency, wrote in an opinion article.

“Among ASEAN partners, China was the first to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and also ratify the RCEP to promote regional cooperation and seek common development,” Qiao said. “China has actively mediated regional hotspot issues and played a constructive role in improving the situation in Afghanistan, Myanmar and other countries. China is the builder of the Asia-Pacific region, the protector of regional stability and the disseminator of positive energy.”

“The US deliberately mentioned ASEAN’s core position in the region in its Indo-Pacific strategy and tried to pull ASEAN to its side … but ASEAN countries are worried that systems such as the Quad will weaken the role of ASEAN and undermine the unity of ASEAN,” Liao Chang, an assistant researcher at the Institute of American Studies, China Institute of International Studies, said in another article published by Xinhua.

Liao said as most ASEAN members were unwilling to take sides between China and the US, the Indo-Pacific strategy was doomed to fail.

Sun Chenghao, an assistant researcher at the Center for International Security and Strategy Tsinghua University, said the newly-announced Indo-Pacific strategy was more aggressive than Trump’s one, which was “much cry and little done.” Sun said the Biden administration strengthened the promotion of “China threat theory” and called on all allies and partners in the region, as well as European countries, to help ensure “the safety of the Taiwan Strait.”

Sun said the Biden administration outlined its plan to form stronger ties with countries in South and Southeast Asia and Pacific islands. He said 2022 was set to be a year for the US to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy. He added that although the US did not mention much about its economic partnership with its allies and partners in the strategy, it would probably elaborate more in the so-called Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which will be unveiled within weeks.

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Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3