By Wang Yiwei Source: Global Times Published: 2019-1-21
US President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law on December 31, 2018, which attempts to "develop a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region, and for other purposes." In essence, the purpose of Trump's ARIA resembles the "rebalance to the Asia-Pacific" strategy in the previous Barack Obama administration, but it differs in several ways with the Obama policy.
For example, Obama's "rebalance to the Asia-Pacific" strategy focused mainly on military, although observers believe it consisted of measures on diplomacy, economy and culture. Trump's ARIA focuses more on making rules or standards, such as those on economic and international legal standards.
The ARIA states US strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region include China's "certain destabilizing activities," North Korean nuclear issue and threats from ISIS and other terrorist organizations. However, the main consideration is coping with a rising China among them. The ARIA also touched upon North Korea, and this is because the US wants to gain support from Southeast Asian nations out of the latter's concerns over Pyongyang. Terrorism is also a kind of camouflage.
Compared to the "rebalancing to Asia-Pacific," the ARIA may create more trouble for China. Unlike Obama, who tended to be more tolerant of China's rise and paid more attention to domestic issues, Trump is tougher and tries harder to contain China. However, China does not need to worry too much about the ARIA. As long as China manages the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) well and negotiates with the US positively, the ARIA may not pose a huge threat to China.
The ARIA also claims to "redouble our commitment to established alliances and partnerships" and "expand security and defense cooperation with allies and partners." There is possibility that some countries or parties will show obvious US leanings in the Indo-Pacific region. They are the group the US is actually trying to attract to counter China's influence. Some countries may take speculative steps, but few will pander to the US publicly. Some nations may consider China as a threat in certain areas, but few would regard the issue from the same perspective as the US. Meanwhile, many Indo-Pacific countries maintain close economic ties with China and few will blindly follow the US.
Furthermore, many countries believe President Trump is unpredictable, as he has continually emphasized "America First" since taking office. These countries worry that their interests could be compromised for the US is Trump's priority. Additionally, in the next US presidential election in 2020, it is not guaranteed that Trump will be re-elected. As a result, even the allies and partners of the US may not stand with it against China. They are aware that they have to pay the price for doing so, since China may take counter measures. However, these allies and partners are not likely to go openly against the US, and many may adopt an ambiguous strategy.
The ARIA also said the US is "to promote peaceful resolutions of maritime and territorial disputes." The "peace" is of course from a US perspective and understanding. First, the US requires support from those countries which are interested in being shielded by Washington's security umbrella. Second, the US can sell the arms to its allies and partners to strengthen their power to counter China's growing influence in the region but also globally, safeguarding the international system led by the US.
The US involvement will deepen conflicts and disputes in the South China Sea, increasing some speculative action by some countries. Vietnam is an example. Hanoi maintains a close economic relationship with China, while it is still an important US partner in Southeast Asia, especially on security issues.
The reaffirmation of "freedom of navigation and overflight" in the Act may enable US aircraft carriers to exert hegemony in the South China Sea and may bring chaos to the region. According to Reuters, both the US and the UK have carried out their first joint naval drills in this contested region. In addition, on January 7, the US navy sailed into China's territorial waters. These two incidents are evidence of a US desire to consistently intervene in regional affairs.
In summary, China and the US need more dialogue and communication to avoid a vicious circle of competition.
The author is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.