Free, Open, and Sharper-Edged: America's Embrace of Strategic Competition

Lindsey Ford in the CSCAP 2019 Regional Security Outlook


Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, July 26, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez/Released )

The following essay by ASPI Director of Political-Security Affairs Lindsey Ford was originally published by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific's 2019 Regional Security Outlook.

One year after publishing its first National Security Strategy, the Trump administration has put to bed any questions about whether or not it was serious about “great power competition”. Long gone are the days of chocolate cake-fueled camaraderie between President Trump and President Xi at Mar-a-Lago. The administration’s national security wing and economic nationalists seem to have found common cause in a vision of strategic competition with Beijing that has emerged as the animating force of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Although President Trump continues to speak warmly of his personal relationship with Xi, the administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both make clear that the administration sees deeper and profound structural problems in the U.S.-China relationship.

Vice President Pence outlined the administration’s position in stark terms in a recent speech, critiquing what he called “a whole-of- government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda” to erode U.S. geopolitical advantages. In his speech, he outlined a litany of grievances with Beijing—ranging from intellectual property theft to coercion of U.S. media and educational institutions and even attempts to influence U.S. domestic politics. The administration is not just paying lip service to these concerns. It has moved aggressively in recent months to put substance behind the rhetoric, beginning with $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, support for new legislation to restrict Chinese access to sensitive U.S. technologies, and more aggressive efforts to prosecute Chinese intellectual property theft.

Although the objective of U.S. policy is now clear, what is less obviousis where the administration’s new strategy is headed. Are we heading toward the free and open Indo-Pacific the Trump administration envisions, or a Cold War 2.0 as some experts suggest? Competition with Beijing may be the leitmotif of the Trump administration’s strategy, but its impact on the rest of the region is what will ultimately determine its success or failure. As Jim Goldgeier reminds us, the original aim of the post-war liberal order was not simply to contain Russia; it was to “create political and economic freedom along with collective security”. The true measure of success for the Trump administration will be the degree to which its competitive approach advances a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The questions below aim to provide useful yardsticks with which to assess the impact of U.S. competition in the coming year.

Is U.S. strategy enabling fair & inclusive growth?

The Trump administration was roundly criticised early in its tenure for lacking a credible economic agenda for the region, especially following its high-profile retreat from the Trans- Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The administration has been making moves to shift this narrative over the past year. Secretary Pompeo headlined a high-profile “Indo-Pacific Business Forum” in July 2018, meant to outline the administration’s focus on fuelling private sector engagement and growth in the region. Pompeo’s speech highlighted the need for “fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, and improved connectivity to drive regional ties”.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Trump administration has moved to put concrete substance behind these ideals, creating the first signs of an affirmative plan to promote growth in the region. This includes new initiatives providing over $100 million in funding for infrastructure, energy investments, and technology, as well as bipartisan legislation that will modernise U.S. development assistance and incentivise greater private sector investment in emerging economies. It remains to be seen how these efforts will unfold in practice, but both have been well-received and are a step in the right direction.

But the administration’s trade policy—particularly its focus on widespread tariff actions—continues to create friction that may undermine these positive steps. On the one hand, the administration’s tough stance against Chinese intellectual property theft and acquisition of sensitive technologies has been welcomed by some allies and partners and enjoys bipartisan support in many quarters in the United States. However, the President’s penchant for tariffs has repeatedly muddled the administration’s message about economic “openness” and “fairness”.

The impact of U.S. tariffs has fallen not just on China, but oftentimes just as heavily on U.S. allies and partners, sparking a series of retaliatory actions that are creating greater barriers to trade in multiple industries. The administration’s tactics may be producing leverage in terms of slowing Chinese economic growth, but there are already signs the regional impacts will be much more widespread. Recent reports suggest South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan are already suffering from manufacturing slowdowns. And while countries such as Vietnam may welcome signs that companies are shifting production from China to Southeast Asia, the consequences of a serious slowdown in Chinese economic growth would be dire for countries across the region.

Ultimately, the administration has taken perhaps its biggest strategic gamble in its hard-hitting economic stance. If it can begin to show concrete progress in creating a more equitable, open business environment, and securing high-quality trade agreements, perhaps the risk will pay off. However, executing this high- wire approach will require a degree of strategic consistency that will be anathema to President Trump’s gut- check approach to deal-making. If the President accepts a series of warmed over “concessions” from China in return for removal of U.S. tariffs, or if as some experts fear, continues to further expand and escalate U.S. tariff actions, it will be hard to convince allies and partners that the administration’s plan is leading toward a more free and open order.

Is U.S. strategy strengthening support for liberal norms and values?

One of the more notable shifts in U.S. messaging from the Obama to the Trump administrations has been the move toward a much more ideological depiction of the U.S.-China relationship. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy presaged this shift, arguing that the central challenge in the Indo-Pacific region is a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order”. Over the past two years, the United States has become more pointed in its critiques of China’s actions both abroad and at home, chastising the “predatory economics” of its Belt and Road Initiative, accusing it of impinging on the sovereignty of its neighbours, and criticising its suppression of civil liberties at home. It has also been more direct in painting China’s actions, and its efforts to promote alternative principles and governance models, as fundamentally inimical to the establishment of a more free and open region.

A message of freedom and openness is certainly much-needed, given the degree to which authoritarianism and illiberalism are on the rise across the Indo-Pacific. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center showed notably weak levels of commitment to representative democracy across Asia, even in some established democracies and Transparency International points to challenges including “rampant” public corruption, widespread attacks on “freedom of expression”, and severe constraints on “civic space”. The most recent annual update from Reporters without Borders paints a similarly worrisome picture of press freedom, reporting that the Asia-Pacific is home to the “deadliest countries” and “biggest prisons” for journalists and bloggers. The key question for the Trump administration will be whether it moves beyond hard-hitting rhetoric to focus on the policies and programs needed to reverse these trends.

The administration’s public narrative has been strong, but it has missed critical opportunities to support its message in practice. On the international level, the administration has shown little interest in strengthening regional institutions and agreements. President Trump has twice skipped out on attending the East Asia Summit, missing a unique opportunity to engage other leaders in a discussion about the principles and values the United States seeks to advance in the region. Likewise, although the administration has been outspoken about China’s repression of civil liberties, it has done little to address wide-scale human rights abuse in places such as Myanmar, the Philippines, and North Korea.

Beyond its regional policies, one of the most notable weak spots in the Trump administration’s diplomatic approach has been the degree to which it has crippled itself on the budgetary and personnel front. Although the National Security Strategy posits the administration will “upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment”, the administration proposed draconian cuts to State Department and USAID funding that would have slashed support for good governance, democracy promotion, and human rights. Similarly, the U.S. Foreign Service has seen a remarkable degree of attrition under the current administration, and several critical diplomatic posts—including the chief diplomat for Asia at the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to Australia—remain vacant (a new nominee for Ambassador to Australia was announced on 5 November 2018). In the switch from Secretary Tillerson to Secretary Pompeo, the administration now has a chief diplomat who appears to have the President’s trust. But with the degree to which the Secretary has been focused on North Korea and Iran, it’s not at all clear how much diplomatic bandwidth will be left for the rest of the region. Unless the administration rectifies some of these challenges and gets serious about resourcing its diplomatic strategy, it will be competing for U.S. ideals with one hand tied behind its back.

Is the United States building collective security?

Aside from the dramatic escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula in 2017, U.S. defence policy has been one of the most consistent elements of the Trump administration’s Indo- Pacific strategy. The administration is continuing to implement some of the major security moves the Obama administration made in the region—including implementing force posture agreements with the Philippines and Australia, and moving more advanced capabilities forward to the Indo-Pacific. Under Secretary Mattis, the Defense Department has also prioritised bolstering its ties to close allies and partners and appears to be doubling down on a few key relationships—India and Vietnam—in particular. The strength of U.S. security ties has provided much-needed ballast at a time when bilateral political and economic relationships have been in flux. To some degree this reflects relative bipartisan agreement about U.S. security relationships, but it also reflects the influence of Secretary of   Defense Mattis, who has served as a steadying voice within the administration.

Going forward, there are signs that the United States may be moving into a rockier, less even-keel period on the security front. The relative stability the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship maintained in the early days of the Trump administration is now fraying. The past few months have seen a notable downturn in the relationship, with China responding to a range of U.S. actions—such as disinviting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from the international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises and placing sanctions on a branch of the Chinese military—by refusing a U.S. Navy port call to Hong Kong and postponing a counterpart visit with Secretary Mattis. More important, however, the U.S. national security community’s deep (and bipartisan) concern about an eroding U.S. military edge in the Pacific is not going away. Addressing this problem will undoubtedly lead to further decisions, such as the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), that will impact strategic stability in the region.

Many U.S. (and allied) national security experts will rally behind such an approach. But for anxious regional partners fearful of an overly- heated U.S.-China relationship, it will be essential to demonstrate that the United States has a plan to manage and defuse the risks of such a strategy. Thus far, the administration seems primarily concerned with improving its competitive edge. It will need to balance this with tangible efforts to build confidence-building mechanisms that can release some of the pressure on the military-to-military side. At the end of the day, maintaining the U.S. military edge is a necessary, but insufficient, aim. The administration will also need to reassure partners that its aim is collective security and not simply creating security for “America first”.


Two years after President Trump’s elections, most of the worst fears about what a Trump presidency might mean for Asia have not been realised. The United States remains engaged in the region, focused on maintaining alliance relationships, and committed to creating greater freedom and openness.

But the administration’s shift toward a more openly competitive U.S.-China relationship suggests that U.S. strategy may be on the precipice of a significant, and potentially longer-term, realignment. The administration’s rhetoric should not be written off as mere political posturing. It reflects deeper fissures in the bilateral consensus about how to manage U.S.-China relations that have been growing for the past few years. How and where the tectonic plates eventually resettle remains to be seen. But what will be essential to remember in navigating what is likely to be a period of more rocky years ahead, is that competing with China, much like cooperating with China, is merely a means to an end. The aim is a free and open Indo-Pacific; competition is only meaningful if it brings about that goal.

Read the full CSCAP report.