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President's Commentary: Are We Losing to the People’s Republic of China in the Indo-Pacific?

By Lt. Gen. Susan S. Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

The United States is losing the battle for influence in Southeast Asia, an area strategically vital in the larger Indo-Pacific region, according to a recent study by the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney, Australia.

The study, Asia Power Snapshot: China and the United States in Southeast Asia, found that the United States lost influence to China over the past five years in four categories: economic relationships, defense networks, diplomatic impact and cultural influence. The institute measures influence through an Asia power index with a total of 100 points available on each measure. In 2018, China led the United States 52-48; in 2022, that lead increased to 54-46.

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a World Politics Review article that China’s spreading influence comes despite Beijing’s increasing aggression in the region. “While one could reasonably expect this to negatively affect China’s standing in the region, the opposite is the case,” he wrote.



On the other hand, the headline of a June 4th article by Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, declared that America is winning against China in Oceania. “Not only have Washington and its allies recently made geostrategic gains in the region, but Beijing has grossly mismanaged its diplomacy there,” Grossman stated. As examples of U.S. successes, he cited recent security agreements signed with Papua New Guinea and renewed compacts of free association with multiple countries.

Experts often refer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) strategy as a carrot-and-stick approach, combining economic incentives, diplomatic efforts, military ties and technological advances. The U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy describes the stick, stating that the PRC is “undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”

The carrot comes in the form of economic assistance and development and low-cost technologies. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, represents a monumental investment to link China to the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world through physical infrastructure. Launched in 2013, it was expected to foster a new era of trade relationships and economic growth. Increasingly, however, China’s colossal investment is seen as a trap, ensnaring nations in debt to a Communist country promoting no interests but its own.

It will be interesting to see whether China’s economic woes lead to a bigger stick and a smaller carrot. Crippled more than most nations by the COVID-19 pandemic, China continues to falter. In a September report, CNBC listed a few of China’s baffling missteps: the disappearance of prominent entrepreneurs, a new espionage adversely affecting businesses and a dramatic shift of capital and loans from the private sector to state-owned enterprises.

Whether blame rests with Xi Jinping or the Communist Party, CNBC reported, the assault on the private sector—which drove the country’s prosperity—will likely continue.

It is not easy to determine who wields more influence in the region, and the discussion continues. But I suspect China’s aggression will ultimately backfire. While coercion and manipulation may work in the short term, many nations will work with China only as much as—and for as long as—they must. Such tactics seldom result in long-term friendships or true partnerships based on trust and loyalty.

Fortunately, we enjoy numerous friendships in the region. These include regional treaties with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Thailand; partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands; strong relationships with the 10 ASEAN member nations and intensifying security and economic ties with Australia, India and Japan as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.   

Our Indo-Pacific friends and allies trust that they can count on us, and we certainly count on them. And in the end, trust is the only influence metric that matters.