The USA’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Overestimating the China threat and ignoring East Asian reality

What the USA has labelled the Indo-Pacific (I-P) has become a central arena in the USA’s conflict with China. A conflict that has rapidly developed over the last 5 years from a trade dispute to a broad and increasingly ideologically based attempt to counter and constrain China at all levels. This is seen by the USA as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, with increasing strategic and military dimensions. As witnessed by statements and actions surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s 2 August 2022 visit to Taiwan.

It is now the case that US:

Policy makers consider every Chinese diplomatic initiative, whether it is an international lending program, a free-trade agreement, or educational cooperation with American universities, as a strategic manoeuvre that challenges U.S. security and that requires an adversarial response (Ross 2022).

There is here, a general failure / unwillingness to accept that Chinese policy has dimensions other than opposing and displacing the USA. Or recognise Chinese core interests, particularly with respect to security, indeed it often seems from a US perspective, that China has no legitimate security concerns, even in its very immediate neighbourhood.

A major problem is the extent to which the China ‘threat’ to the international order and the USA, its values and global position, has become embedded on both sides of Congress, the media, and the minds of commentators, academics and the public. A product of the massive amount of anti-Chinese material that has been pumped out, particularly since 2016. Much of the cited ‘evidence’ for the China threat is highly selective, distorted and, in the main grossly exaggerated, particularly with respect to military and strategic issues (see for example Swaine 2022). While counter views and facts are generally ignored, while any suggestion of mutual accommodation or policy moderation are variously labelled as appeasement, spreading Chinese propaganda or worse.[1]

In consequence, as was demonstrated at the 28-30 June 2022 Madrid meeting of NATO, it is now unnecessary to provide any evidence of Chinses threat and ambitions to support such statements as:

We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order (NATO 2022a).[2]

This is marked by near hysteria over actual, planned or even possible Chinese developments. Such as the security agreement with the government of the Solomon Islands over infrastructure and the use of limited facilities for refuelling and maintenance of Chinese shipping, including naval ewers. For the USA, this development ‘evokes images of the Chinese Navy contesting American naval presence throughout the Western Pacific and challenging American territorial security’ (Ross 2022). It has been further described as a move by China to ‘rebalance the global order in its favour’, ‘a game changer’ (cited Cave 2022), ‘Australia’s Cuban Missile Crisis’ (cited Lo 2022)[3] and by many as the start of a major spread of Chinese military bases and even imperialism in the Western Pacific (see for example Blank 2022). Though there is yet no evidence that China has any intention of establishing a military base, or of the Solomon Island’s government allowing such a development.[4] Certainly, to date, China has not sought to develop such facilities. Currently the neatest thing that China has to an overseas military base is the airstrip and naval facility at Djibouti that has operated since 2017. There is also a repair and refuelling agreement with Singapore which has been in operation for some 20 years. This has attracted little American comment, despite, as Ross (2022) has noted, the arrangement giving access to very sophisticated facilities in a pivotal strategic location, particularly with respect to the South China Sea. Against these limited developments, the USA has some 850 military bases spread across 80 countries.

American responses and pre-emptive moves against China are reflected in major increases in the USA’s defence budget, increased deployment in the Western Pacific, reinforcing / re-activating long-term regional security alliances – such as Five Eyes[5] and the Five Powers Agreement[6] – and the establishment of new regional structures. Notably, the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue),[7] AUKUS (Australia, UK and USA), and IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity).[8] Under these we are seeing more and larger joint miliary exercises and increased frequency and scale of ‘freedom of navigation’ activity, under the broad banner of ‘A Free and Open Pacific’ (FOI-P), notably in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits.

In addition, under Biden there has been increasing diplomatic activities aimed, in particular, at ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan and South Korea. This has included Presidential visits, an unprecedented USA-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington (12-13 May 2022) and the launching of the IPEF at the fourth meeting of the Quad held in Tokyo on the 24 May 2022 This was accompanied by a joint US-Japanese statement that highlighted the regional and global threats posed by China (White House 2022).

Meanwhile considerable American efforts effort being directed at the new Australian Labour administration which many expected to take a softer line on China – and despite early signs to the country may well still do so. Perhaps moving to stabilise relations with the largest trading partner, not least with respect to policy towards Taiwan, while continuing to support AUKUS and the USA’s broad I-P strategy, including towards the Pacific Islands (Rizk 2022).

There has been a similar courting of the new South Korea President Moon Jae-in. But while South Korea agreeing to join the IPEF may be significant, there is no sign of any willingness to move away from economic dependence on China, with a reiteration of the ‘China for the economy and the USA for security’ line (Lee 2022), and significantly, President Moons’ refusing to meet Nancy Pelosi the day after her visit to Taiwan.

For the USA the most significant prospect is Japan. Here the return of Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democrat party-led government with an increased number of seats in the wake of the assassination of Shinto Abe, does hold out the prospects of substantial increases in the Japanese defence budget and even changes / reinterpretation of the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of Japan’s post-war constitution (Editorial Board, ANU, 2022).[9] Though, as with South Korea, this does not mean that Japan will retreat from its close economic ties with China. It is of some interest that despite offering financial incentives to companies that brought production back from China, this has had little long-term impact on value chains (Todo 2022). Though, Japan does seem to be coming increasingly focused on the vulnerabilities of extended supply chains with a series of measures, including the establishment of an economic bureau within the National Security Secretariate and the passing of economic security legislation in May 2022 (Glosserman 2022).

While I-P countries may be happy to endorse security links with the USA, they are unlikely to do so to the extent that disturbs trade, investment and production linkages with China and the wider, China-centred, East Asian regional production system and related regional institutional structures. Particularly, in the absence of the USA offering any balancing market access or tariff reductions (Dixon 2022a and 2022b).

There is here a complete ignoring of the degree of regional integration and institutional development in East Asia, and the extent to which these are continuing to develop despite trade wars, China’s zero covid policy and geopolitical tensions. Notable current developments included the launching of RCEP, rapid expansion of cross border e-commerce and broader digital integration. Similarly, the limited extent to which value chains, especially in such areas as chip production, can be eastly or rapidly shifted, is ignored (see Goodman 2022; Menon (2022).


Behind all the USA’s concerns over China lies a broad-based unease over the state of the present international order, liberal democracy, and the hegemony of the USA and its currency. These are seen as under systematic attack and already seriously weakened. Indeed, for some US commentators the present system is rapidly becoming a multipolar one, or even sliding into dis-order (Pack 2022). There is here, as with the ‘China threat’, a gross exaggeration (see for example Brooks and Wohlforth 2023). While the USA and the dominant role of the dollar show signs of gradual decline, they remain enormously powerful and deeply embedded in the global system. Though certainly, there are very serious concerns over the state of the USA’s domestic political system, international policy, continuing ability / willingness to provide global leadership and support for the institutional underpinning of the international system. None of which is helped by the shift of the USA to a ‘Security First’ dominated foreign policy, to the detriment of diplomatic approaches and solutions (Roberts 2022). Reinforcing the USA’s long-term inability / unwillingness to recognise the legitimacy of the often very different perspectives, interests and priorities of other countries.

The overall result is an inability to manage the changes and challenges resulting for the ‘rise of the rest’ – led by China, and a falling back on the zero sum Cold War strategy under which it was considered necessary to oppose every move of the USSR, rather than any consideration of the extent to which US interests were likely to be impacted (Wyne 2022).[10] This, under circumstances where the range and extent of moves that have to be opposed have greatly increased. For, while China is the primary target, many other countries are seen by the USA as adversaries. A situation which is in danger of provoking the formation of alliances of adversaries, many of which share little beyond the animosity of the USA, but together might make opposition to the USA more effective (Pillar 2022).


Blank, J. (2022) ‘China’s Troubling New Military Strategy is Coming into View’, The Atlantic, 5 May,

Brooks, S. G. and Wohlforth, W. C. (2023) ‘The Myth of Multipolarity: American Power’s Staying Power’, Foreign Affairs, 103 (3), May / June,

Cave, D. (2022) ‘Why a Chinese Security Deal in the Pacific Could Ripple Through the World’, New York Times, 20 April,

Dixon. C. (2022a) ‘The USA Indo-Pacific strategy’, GPI Opinion, 27 April,

Dixon. C. (2022b) ‘The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF)’, GPI Opinion, 10 August,

Editorial Board ANU (2022) ‘Shinzo Abe legacy’ East Asian Forum 18 July,

Glosserman, B. (2022) ‘Japan flirts with techno-nationalism’, East Asian Forum, 13 July,

Goodman, S. (2022) ‘Onshoring semiconductors is a chipped ambition’, East Asian Forum, 2 October,

Larison, D. (2022)How the ‘great power competition’ model leads to costly entanglement’, Responsible Statecraft, 18 July,

Lee, S. (20220 ‘South Korea ventures into its Pacific Strategy ‘, East Asia Forum, 11 July,

Lo, A. (2022) ‘Why tiny Solomon Islands fuels Five Eyes paranoia’, SCMP, 24 April,

Menon, J. (2022) ‘Supply chains are more resilient than they appear’, East Asian Forum, 3 July,

NATO (2022a) ‘Madrid Summit Declaration’, issued by NATO Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of 29 June the North Atlantic Council in Madrid,

NATO (2022b) ‘Opening remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Security and Defence followed by an exchange of views with Members of the European Parliament’, 13 July,

Pack, J. (2022) Libya and the global disorder, Hurst, London.

Pillar, P. R. (2022) ‘The United States is building a coalition of its adversaries’, Responsible Statecraft, 19 July,

Polychronious, C. J. (2022) ‘Chomsky: Six months into the war and a diplomatic settlement is still possible’, Truthout, interview with Noam Chomsky, 24 August, 

Rizk, A. (2022) ‘Australia’s regional policy shift lines up with the US focus on China’, Responsible Statecraft, 18 July,

Roberts, G. (2022) ‘Are these hawks really calling for a preventive war?’, Responsible Statecraft, 26 August,

Ross, R. (2022) ‘Solomon Islands-China deal punctures US complacency’, Responsible Statecraft, 1 July,

Swaine, M. D. (2022) ‘Threat inflation and the Chinese military’, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 2 June, Quincy Paper No, 7,

Todo, J. (2022) ‘ Japan’s post-Covid approach to supply chains’, East Asian Forum 3 July,

White House (2022) ‘Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement: Strengthening the Free and Open International Order’, Briefing Room, Statements and Releases, 23 May,

Wyne, A. (2022) America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition, Polity Press, Cambridge.


[1] On the issue of the suppression of unpopular views and un-wanted facts in such ‘free societies’ as the USA in the context of Ukraine conflict see the August 2022 Polychronious interview with Noam Chomsky. Which does suggest that the demonising of Chinese could get very much worse if the US was to deploy its full opinion forming forming arsenal.

[2] See also the Secretary General’s remarks and Q&A with the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Security and Defence, 13 July 2022 (NATO 2022b).

[3] The Solomon Islands are some 2245km from Australia compared to Cuba’s 166km from the USA.

[4] On an even flimsier basis the USA has recently made much of the possibility of a Chinese naval facility in Cambodia.

[5] Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and USA – often refereed to as the Anglo-sphere.

[6] Australia, Malaysia Singapore and UK.

[7] Australia, India, Japan and USA.

[8] Launched by the USA 23 May 2022 with 13 regional members – Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. While these represent some 40% of world GDP, the act of signing commits countries to very little (Dixon 2022b).

[9] In order to move towards an autonomous defence posture.

[10] See also the supportive comments by Larison 2022.

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