To counter China, US could learn from Beijing’s successes in Asia

To counter China, US could learn from Beijing’s successes in Asia
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Remember President Obama’s pledge to make the Asia-Pacific region a top priority in U.S. security policy? You’d be forgiven, because it was a strategy in name only. While the Obama administration talked up its policy, announced during the former president’s 2011 visit to Australia, China smartly enhanced its engagement with Asian countries and became the most important power for states in the region.

Now the Trump administration has announced a new pivot to the Indo-Pacific region. So, what makes this time any different? Unfortunately, early indications suggest this pledge may be as insignificant as the last one. For starters, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger McEnany appears on Fox in 'personal capacity' as Trump campaign adviser US signs satellite data-sharing pact with India, warns of Chinese threats MORE announced an investment of $113 million for the region — chicken feed for most of those countries.

Consider what China spends as part of its strategic push. According to research by scholars at William & Mary, China spent $48 billion in the region between 2000 and 2016. Beneficiary countries included Malaysia ($13.9 billion), Cambodia ($9.1 billion), Indonesia ($9 billion), Vietnam ($3.7 billion), Mongolia (2.3 billion) and the Philippines ($1.1 billion). Crucially, $45.8 billion was spent on infrastructure projects — generating a trove of flow-on benefits for China such as goodwill, access to new markets, employment for its citizens and valuable intelligence.


Given that much of this infrastructure is critical to the client state, Chinese investment has the potential to tie countries into long-term dependent relationships that are advantageous to Beijing. For example, Chinese financing for a port project in Sri Lanka resulted in the transfer of valuable real estate to China. China’s savvy in obtaining sovereign territory in Sri Lanka through commercial dealings has echoes in the colonial histories of many Asian countries, albeit at the hands of Britain and France. The Sri Lankan example deserves closer examination; it may hold important lessons for other states as they go deeper into China’s arms.

Against China’s sophisticated and differentiated approach to each country in the region, the current U.S. commitment of $113 million is likely to yield trivial benefits unless there is a better utilization of available levers. Here are some options:

First, there is a powerful lesson to be learned from Chinese diplomatic successes in the region: avoid hectoring and engage in win-win projects. For too long, U.S. engagement with the region has been based on didactic homilies about human rights and related matters. While it is absolutely imperative for the United States to condemn genuine human rights violations, allowing U.S. foreign policy to be hijacked by causes that may not be legitimate or enjoy much domestic support is counterproductive to U.S. interests. And public lectures by U.S. officials only crystallize support for the domestic regime and fuel nationalistic feelings.

Second, recognize that many Asian countries have complicated legacies from colonialism. The public doesn’t take kindly to Western interference in their domestic affairs. A softer approach is more likely to be seen as respectful, and could yield better results.

Third, deploy American expertise for capacity-building in Asia. U.S. companies may not be able to compete with Chinese enterprises when it comes to building railways, bridges or other bricks-and-mortar infrastructure, but America enjoys an overwhelming advantage over China for other infrastructure — public institutions, education, technology, finance, energy and health care.

Countries including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mongolia and the Philippines have underdeveloped regulatory bodies, courts, security apparatus and markets. Many of these countries have a common law-based legal system and constitutions that take inspiration from America. The United States has decades of experience in designing institutions necessary for free markets that could serve as models. That can happen only if education leads to capacity-building for officials in Asian countries.

U.S. universities could leverage technology to provide quality American education to millions of Asian students. Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have some of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world allied with the highest use of social media. India is catching up fast. Together, these countries offer potential markets for online education delivered through mobile phones to reach hundreds of millions of students currently without access to quality education.

Similarly, millions of people do not have access to banking and finance. They have virtually no access to credit, depriving them of commercial opportunities. Alternative financing, enabled by mobile wallets, could unlock new markets for products and services. In turn, education and financing could fuel the development of technology locally on the back of American platforms.

Finally, American research in health care can be vital to solving impending lifestyle problems such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases as these countries transition to greater wealth. Partnering with Asian countries to build health care infrastructure offers obvious advantages, with derivative benefits for pharmaceutical companies, insurers and others.

In the end, bricks and mortar can build only monuments. In contrast, human infrastructure can touch real lives and make a difference in the Indo-Pacific region. And that relies on the most American of virtues — the power of ideas — to maximise a competitive advantage that China cannot match.

To be clear, this requires a fundamental change in American engagement with Asia: respect, understanding, and long-term strategic investment on par with historical practice in Europe. It also demands understanding that most Asian countries seek strong relations with both China and the United States, and are not interested in becoming pawns in dyadic competition. A small number have legitimate apprehensions about China and may be candidates for deeper security cooperation to balance China. But both groups will need more than a $113 million investment to change their posture toward America.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to change U.S. engagement with Asia. The president’s transactional approach, based on trade rather than aid, would play particularly well in the Indo-Pacific region. If Trump pivots to Asia with bargains, rather than lectures, he can seize the Asian century and deliver wins for the United States and the Indo-Pacific region.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.